“Spiritual Betrothals”: Iranian Women Engaged to Casualties of War

Raz Zimmt investigates the discourse surrounding the phenomenon of young Iranian women who announce that they are betrothed to Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war, or in Iran’s more recent military campaigns in Syria and Iraq.

נשים איראניות בבית קברות צבאי, מתוך טוויטר
Iranian women in a military cemetery, from Twitter.

In recent weeks, Iranian social networks have published reports about Iranian women, some of them members of the Basij (Revolutionary Guards Popular Militia), who have announced their engagement to Iranian soldiers who were killed in the Iran-Iraq war or in Iran’s more recent military campaigns in Syria and Iraq. The testimonies on this issue have provoked a wide-ranging discourse attesting to the intensity of the public's sensitivity to the issue of the fallen and its centrality in the Iranian collective consciousness.

In early November 2018, discussion of this phenomenon began in response to a tweet by journalist Behnam Gholipour, editor of the opposition website Digarban. Using his personal account, Gholipour claimed that for several years now, “Hezbollah women” [meaning very pious women who identify with the Iranian regime] visit the military section of the Behesht Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran, and choose one of the fallen soldiers buried there with whom to establish a “heavenly connection,” meaning to become engaged to him.[1]

Within a short time, additional evidence supporting Gholipour’s claim began to appear on social networking sites. On Twitter, an Iranian woman shared a picture of an Iranian fighter whom she referred to as “my martyr.” She asked if there were other women who had developed “friendships” with martyrs, and encouraged them to share their pictures online. In response, dozens of women shared pictures and details of their “beloved martyrs.”[2] Approximately a month later, Mehran Mohammadi, a user who identified himself as a political activist from Isfahan, tweeted about a chance encounter with a young woman in a military cemetery. When he asked her what her relationship was to the soldier on whose grave she sat, the woman answered that he is her fiancé. He was surprised by her answer, and said that the deceased had not been engaged. In response, she explained that she belongs to a group of Basiji women who become engaged to martyrs in order to maintain a “spiritual relationship” with them. [3]

Publication of these testimonies led to stormy discussion on Iranian social media. Most users expressed shock and dismay, and some even cast doubt on the reliability of the reports. Many contended that the women who become engaged to fallen soldiers are mentally ill and suffering from necrophilia, fetishism, and other forms of deviant behavior.[4] Others shared mocking responses including, for example, ones relating to the ability of these women to become impregnated by their deceased lovers. One user cynically asked if, as a Muslim man, he would be permitted to marry four female fallen soldiers, and then benefit from the support provided by the Iranian Martyr Foundation , which assists the families of war casulties.[5] Even those users who felt some identification with the pain of women who testified of their special relationship with the fallen, expressed reservations about their behavior, claiming that it is disrespectful of the dead and inconsistent with the principles of Islam. One such user claimed that there are better ways to memorialize the fallen, and the behavior of these women makes the matter seem ridiculous.[6]

Among users who identify with opposition to the Iranian regime, this phenomena was presented as an expression of the moral and ethical crisis faced by the Islamic Republic under the leadership of religious hardliners. One response noted that this was  the result of the Islamic Republic’s policy of promoting a culture that “loves death” and sacrifices millions of innocent lives for its sake.[7] Another user complained that Iran is gradually becoming a psychiatric hospital for its millions of citizens.[8] Several people equated this extreme phenomena with “sexual jihad” that was previously attributed to ISIS fighters who forced themselves sexually on female captives.[9]

In response to the pictures of Iranian martyrs uploaded by Iranian women who attested to their special relationships with them, several other users uploaded pictures of Iranian citizens, male and female, who were killed in confrontations with the security forces during the demonstrations and riots that erupted in Iran during summer 2009. Those pictured included Neda Soltan, a young woman who was killed by shots fired by security forces and became a prominent symbol of the "Green  movement".[10] In this way, users expressed their position that the victims of political oppression killed by the Iranian regime are also worthy of being considered martyrs.

Public interest in the phenomenon was so significant that even official representatives of the regime found it necessary to respond. Head of the Basij women’s organization Minou Aslani strongly criticized the phenomena, while claiming she had never encountered it on a personal level. In an interview with the ILNA news agency, Aslani described the women who become engaged to fallen soldiers as deluded, irrational and suffering from mental illness that requires psychological treatment. She emphasized that the culture of martyrdom and sacrifice as positive but that there is no connection between the martyrs and their “fiancées” and that this phenomenon is unworthy and irrational. [11] A member of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) Social Affairs Committee, Zahra Saei described the phenomena as dangerous, and called on the authorities to combat it. She noted that it is illogical for a woman to become engaged to a deceased man, and that as a member of the bereaved family she considers it a desecration of the fallen soldiers’ dignity. The culture of sacrifice is indeed a sacred value that is well-defined by Islam, and spreading deviant ideas about engagement to fallen soldiers holds them up to ridicule, continued Saei.[12]

A tweet by Mohsen Rezaei, who served as commander of the Revolutionary Guards in the Iran-Iraq war, set off another stormy public debate related to fallen Iranian soldiers. On the 32nd anniversary of the Karbala-4 offensive, which was supposed to have conquered the Iraqi city of Basra but ended with the Iranians defeated after only one day of fighting and thousands of Iranian soldiers dead, Rezaei claimed that the operation had been designed only to deceive the enemy. This claim was severely criticized by users who considered it disrespectful of the dead and wounded in Karbala-4.[13]

Although it seems that the phenomenon of Iranian women being engaged to martyrs is extremely limited, its widespread echoes on social media  is evidence of the tremendous public sensitivity towards the issue of war casualties by both the Iranian government, which invests extensive effort in memorializing the fallen,[14] and by the general public. This sensitivity, together with the influence of online social media on public discourse creates an opportunity for the regime to nurture an ethos of self-sacrifice as part of its effort to unify the public around shared national symbols, and foster collective consciousness. However, social networking services also provide a fertile ground for revealing and encouraging extreme trends and phenomena that are ostensible side effects of that ethos, ones that do not serve the regime, and that can be used by the opposition to attack it and demonstrate the extremity of its positions.


[1] @beehnam, Twitter.com, 2 November 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.

[2]  @maraljanam, Twitter.com, 16 November 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.

[3] @madar1348, Twitter.com, 21 December 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.

[4]  @Elesa_oland, Twitter.com, 24 December 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.

[5] @Babak_in_Exile, Twitter.com, 27 December 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.

[6]  @mahdiayyarian, Twitter.com, 16 November 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.

[7] @Toranj182, Twitter.com, 4 November 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.

[8]  @Alaki_Khosh, Twitter.com, 2 November 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.

[9] @ebrahim_khani, Twitter.com, 21 December 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.

[10]  @gandomgoun, Twitter.com, 23 December 2018. Last accessed 3 January 2019.


[11] "Claims of engagement to martyrs are delusive, depressive and psychiatric", ILNA, 24 December 2018.

[12] “Member of the (parliamentary) Social Affairs Committee Cautions Heeding the Alarm Sounded”, ISNA, 1 January 2019.

[14] For more on this context, see Raz Zimmt, Online Monuments: Commemorating Iranian Deaths during the Campaign in Syria” Beehive, volume 4, issue 6, June 2016.