A courageous revolutionary
Yassamine Mather pays tribute to ‘comrade Azam’, daughter of the late Taher Ahmadzadeh
Taher Ahmadzadeh, a veteran member of Iran’s Jebheh Melli (National Front - Mossadegh’s political coalition) and the Freedom Movement, who became briefly the governor of Khorassan province after the Iranian revolution of 1979, died two weeks ago in Mashad, northern Iran. Most of the Persian language press inside and outside the country published lengthy obituaries. He had been imprisoned both during the Pahlavi period and after the Islamic Revolution and the obituaries dedicated paragraphs to his sons Massoud and Majid, founders of the Sazman-e Cherikha-ye Fadayee-ye Khalgh, OIPFG, who were executed by the Shah’s regime, and his youngest son, Mojtaba, a sympathizer of another communist organisation, who opposed armed struggle, killed at the age of 25 by the Islamic Republic.
However almost all of these obituaries failed to mention his daughter Mastoureh Ahmadzadeh, who is alive, who was a political prisoner of the Shah’s regime and became a leading figure of OIPFG, a member of its central committee. The editors, journalists and commentators who remind us everyday how they have become ‘feminists’, the very same people who complain daily about the lack of women ministers in Rouhani’s government (as if that would make any difference to a government led by a reformist Shia cleric) wrote about Taher Ahmadzadeh and his three sons but not a word about his daughter. It is almost as if she doesn’t exist.
This short piece, based on my memories of Mastoureh (comrade Azam) in Kurdistan and later in France, is to balance that omission. She is alive and well, and I know, being the ultra modest, self sacrificing woman that she is, she would not thank me for writing this piece. In her belief one should only write about the life of the Fedayeen after their death. However I am deliberately breaking that rule, in response to a genuine anger felt by many on the Iranian left for the blatant omission of her name in articles written about her father.
Mastoureh’s brother Massoud Ahmadzadeh (March 2 1945 - December 4 1972), a founding member of the Fedayeen, was a political theorist who with Amir Parviz Pouyan believed the deathly silence of the left opposition in Iran after the 1953 CIA coup could and should be broken with a series of armed operations paving the way for the defeat of ‘capitalism and the comprador bourgeoisie’.
Irrespective of how we judge this political theory now, the movement they started changed the political scene in Iran in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Massoud, a mathematics student in Tehran university, started a rebellion not just against the shah’s regime, but also against the Tudeh Party, the traditional ‘official communist’ party in Iran, whose name had become synonymous with compromise and betrayal. It goes without saying that the Soviet Union did not support the Iranian revolutionary movement against the Shah. This official pro-Soviet party was for broad alliances and the ‘peaceful road to socialism’.
Of course, to take up arms against the shah’s dictatorship was suicidal, because it was inevitable that a large number of those who did so would be killed - and 13 out of the 19 of what was called the original cell of the Fedayeen died in the fighting and a number of members and supporters were executed later. However, the movement survived. In his writings Massoud Ahmadzadeh destroyed the illusion that the ‘national bourgeoisie’ could have a revolutionary or progressive role in late 20th century Iran. Describing the democratic socialist character of the revolution, he wrote: “Struggle against imperialist domination - ie, world capitalism - has elements of the struggle with capitalism and therefore elements of the socialist revolution are born in this struggle”.
The defeat of successive military operations, the execution and killing of dozens (some say hundreds) of the group’s members did not dampen the enthusiasm of the organisation’s supporters, nor did it reduce the number of new recruits. The guerilla operation at Siahkal1 not only opened a new chapter in the life of the radical left in Iran, but also influenced contemporary Iranian poetry and literature beyond the imagination of those who launched it. Mohamad Reza Shafie Kadkani’s famous poem ‘Moj Khazar’ (written for Siahkal) was memorised by tens of thousands, the event and the subsequent moment made its mark even in pop songs. And, in typical Shia tradition, young Iranians found Marxist martyrs to admire, as opposed to Shia martyrs.
However this article is about Massoud’s sister. Mastoureh was a member of the central committee of a political organisation which no longer believed in military struggle as ‘a tactic and strategy’, an organisation that by February 1979 had mass support. Its intervention on February 11 challenged the peaceful transition to power envisaged by Khomeini when OIPFG supporters in the Iranian air force, helped by the group’s ability to distribute arms expropriated from military garrisons amongst ordinary people, overwhelmed the Shah’s loyal guards in street fights. In the words of Khomeini’s first premier, Bazargan: “We wanted rain, we got floods.” Its meetings in the first few weeks after the February uprising could easily gather half a million members and supporters in Tehran alone.
Even then, many amongst OIPFG’s members did believe in arming the working class with the kind of organisation and politics necessary for the overthrow of capitalism in Iran. In the weeks before the Shah’s overthrow the group had intensified its work amongst oil workers in Tehran and in the oil regions of the south. These were very different times from Siahkal and one of the leading figures of that period was Mastoureh Ahmadzadeh, recently released from prison. As far as I know, she has only ever written two short pieces about herself. Here is one of them:
“From childhood, my father, [Taher Ahmadzadeh] had been imprisoned many times, and behind prison doors I was a witness to arrest and torture. I myself was arrested and jailed in Mahshad for the first time for engaging in a strike. The place was not foreign to me. After a while, in the new prison, I lifted the mattress, and found the imprint of Evin on it. I had heard of Evin many times. The prison had been established during Teimour Bahktiar’s tenure; it was located in the village of Evin; the locale had been turned into a dreadful place of imprisonment. It was one of the worst torture chambers of the Savak2. But I had no fear. I had done nothing wrong. Additionally, in those days, being incarcerated on political grounds was an honour. I always asked myself why men were the only ones who were kept in prison. In Mashad prison, they released all of us and only kept the men.”3
OIPFG named her their candidate in the elections to the Council of Experts (which replaced the promised Constitutional Assembly) and although no one expected a seat for the left in what became a council full of Shia clerics, the election gave the organisation the opportunity to explain its politics and organise large meetings in major cities.
At the time of the Minority-Majority split in the Fedayeen, the question asked by many of the organisation’s supporters was - where does Mastoureh stand? This was partly because details of the political differences were not clear. Rumours, claims and counter claims dominated. That was why many supporters had to decide on the basis of where particular comrades stood vis-a-vis the split. As later became clear, on the whole the opponents of the Islamic Republic were in the Minority faction of the central committee, while the Majority were supporters of the Imam’s (Khomeini’s) line. Soon after the split it became clear that the Majority was opposing the basic stance taken by Massoud Ahmadzadeh and Amir Parviz Pouyan in opposing not just the ‘reformist/revisionist’ position of Tudeh, but also the Soviet Union. The founders of the Fedayeen had no illusions in the ‘socialist camp’, yet the only justification the Majority could find for giving ‘critical support’ to the Islamic Republic government was the fact that - despite brutal repression, waging war on Kurdistan and Turkman Sahra and suppressing workers’ strikes - the new Islamic regime had moved Iran out of the influence of the United States and closer to the ‘socialist camp’. Of course, even this turned out to be an illusion when, a few years later, the regime unleashed its repression on its former supporters, Tudeh and Fedayeen Majority.
On this issue, and as far as the domination of the Tudeh line in sections of the Fedayeen was concerned, in my recollection Mastoureh was considering writing a critique of another Fedayeen theorist, Jazani, whose theory of united front against the Shah’s dictatorship could have paved the way for the development of a reformist tendency. Historians might see this as a valid argument.
In any case, at the time of the Majority-Minority split, her opinions on Tudeh and the Islamic regime were already known. So deciding what faction you support on the basis of Mastoureh’s stance was not as silly as it might appear now. In terms of supporters and members, the Minority managed to become the larger of the two groups as students and workers opposed the soft positions taken by the central committee of the organisation vis-a-vis the increasingly repressive Islamic Republic. For many it was the Majority’s increasingly pro-government positions and the repetition of slogans we had heard so many times before from Tudeh: “Iran’s revolution is a defeat for the imperialist camp and therefore a victory for the socialist camp.” Those of us who had seen in the writings of Amir Parviz Pouyan and Massoud Ahmadzadeh the birth of a completely new revolutionary movement couldn’t believe what we were reading.
The first time I met Mastoureh Ahmadzadeh was on the first morning I woke up in Baghcheh base of the Fedayeen Minority in Iranian Kurdistan. She had spent most of the night at yet another lengthy central committee meeting. That was the norm, and central committee meetings got longer as time went on, sometimes lasting more than 20 hours with short breaks.
Comrade Azam, as she was called in Kurdistan, looked very tired but enthusiastic. Early in the morning she was ready for a stint as a doctor/GP in a house in the village called ‘the clinic’. I was to follow her. She then did her house calls, seeing patients, giving out medications before returning to the base to write her articles. At the time she was editor of the organisation’s paper Kar. This was followed by more political meetings.
What distinguished her from other members of the central committee was her humility. Unlike the men, who were obviously too busy or too important to take their turn as labourer for kitchen and cleaning duties, she seemed to be taking such duties more than most ordinary residents of the camp, covering for those who were not well, those who had been injured in fighting ... and she worked harder than everyone else in the team in terms of volunteering for the more difficult tasks. Cooking food in large pots over a wood fire or washing dozens of dishes in the river, where the water was already cold in September, were not easy tasks. She also acted as the hairdresser - we lived close to stables and hygiene demanded short hair. On my second day in the camp she informed me that she would cut my hair short, and she did a very good job.
A woman of no airs and graces, she wore the worst pishmarga uniform of all those present. We all wore pishmarga trousers and tops, but hers seemed to be made of poor quality material, and often her top was a different colour to her trousers. A real contrast to another central committee member who seemed to wear an impeccably tailored white pishmarga uniform every day. Later in my stay in Kurdistan I realised ‘leaders’ such as Jalal Talebani, who I met months later, took great care of their pishmarga uniforms even in the midst of fighting. The uniform was a sign of ‘importance’.
In the Baghcheh base, women pishmargas all slept in a room in the school that was acting as our main headquarters. Mastoureh always had the worst place for sleeping. Arriving later than anyone else, she almost invariably slept near the door in a sleeping bag and was up before the rest of us. She was proud of her clinic and took great pleasure showing me around the place. Her pet hate was the fact that some pishmargas had used the alcohol she kept for medical purposes to make spirits - the first and only time I heard a hint of anger in her voice.
A few weeks after my arrival she told me I could go with her to a couple of neighbouring villages while she visited some patients. We went in a Jeep and as we approached one of our destinations I could see there was a queue outside a building. By that stage I was not naive enough to think supporters of our political line had gathered there, but as we got off the Jeep it became clear they were all waiting for Mastoureh. Word of mouth had informed patients in a number of neighbouring villages that the female doctor was running a clinic and they had come from a far. What impressed me most was her humanity in dealing with her patients. This very busy political leader, editor of a paper, had time for every one of the patients young and old. She comforted the relatives and gave medical advice. And it was all so different from the attitude of other members of the organisation, many of whom were in our base preparing for a plenum.
A French reporter arrived one day, keen to interview her. I did some translation, although her English was very good. The interviewer wanted to know how she felt as a woman in the leadership of a left wing group. She replied she hadn’t felt discrimination in her family or in the organisation, where “comrades were judged according to their abilities and their efforts” and then she concentrated on talking about her politics. I don’t know if she has changed her mind since then, but in her case it was true that she had moved up in the ranks purely on merit. Mastoureh’s record is unique. A political prisoner of the shah’s era, many women political prisoners of different political persuasions remember her as someone who never showed weakness and, of course, as a prisoner who was useful because of her medical training. A competent organiser during the year of semi open activity in Tehran after February 1979, an excellent public speaker and a compassionate Marxist. I am sure the fact that she was the sister of the organisation’s founding member was not forgotten by most, but none of this should take away her own qualities and competence.
As a woman who could hide under hejab and chador (a long veil covering the entire body) she was the only member of the central committee who regularly went from Kurdistan to Tehran. During my short few months in Baghcheh, before I moved to another base, she undertook the journey to Tehran twice. This was no ordinary journey. Every military checkpoint on the 550 kilometres route, every security post had large photos of her amongst the most wanted opponents of the Islamic Republic. Yet she could cross those posts wearing contact lenses as opposed to her bespectacled ‘wanted’ photo, and wearing Islamic clothes. Under her clothes she was carrying articles leaflets, organisational instructions for cells in Tehran and elsewhere all taped to her body.
The morning of her travels to Tehran you could feel the fear amongst everyone who was staying and of course whoever was travelling with her. What if she got arrested? What if a revolutionary guard recognised her? The only one who seemed at ease, composed and totally fearless was Mastoureh herself. She smiled, joked, and tried to convince others that there would be no problem. The return journey from Tehran was just as dangerous; she was bringing reports from the cells and committees in Tehran and other cities, issues of regional papers, penicillin and pain killers.
In retrospect, a few months later, we came to realise these were the good times. That winter, the base in Baghcheh hosted the much delayed plenum, while mourning the terrible death of 12 Fedayeen fighters caught in a trap set by Islamic Revolutionary Guards. By that time I was in another base but I could imagine how it must have affected every one in Baghcheh. This was the start of the worst period in the history of the Fedayeen in Iranian and later Iraqi Kurdistan. Spiralling internal conflict in the absence of open discussion led to one disaster after another and, of course, as a member of the central committee Mastoureh Ahmadzadeh does accept responsibility for many of the political and organisational mistakes of that period. However historians looking at that particular period, where left-wing Iranian opposition groups were caught in a war zone between Iran’s Islamic Republic and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, will probably take a more sympathetic view of her actions.
The next time I saw Mastoureh was in Paris when the second congress of OIPFG, delayed for many years because of logistic but also political reasons, was being organised. The three surviving members of the central committee had fallen out with each other. If you saw them in a room together, as I did during my visits, you could tell that the political and personal animosity was so severe that nothing could save the group from splits.
Yet as the two male members of the central committee were busy leaking information to allies and cells under their responsibility, gossiping and spreading false rumours about their opponents, she did not utter a word against fellow central committee members, she did not divulge any organisational secret until the day she resigned. For those of us who could see her pain and wanted to help it was impossible to get her to break her own rigid rules when it came to democratic centralism, she did not waver from her principles one millimetre.
Gossiping, making false accusations against political opponents is not her style. For her, democratic centralism wasn’t some superficial idea you talked about in order to impress lower ranks. At the worst period of her political life, as she saw the organisation that meant so much to her being destroyed, she remained calm and in control of her emotions, she did not betray her own standards.
But all through this time the men of the central committee were busy telling everyone that as an emotional woman she wasn’t thinking straight and that is why she wasn’t choosing their faction against the other one. The reality was she no longer trusted either of them. Despite her unassuming and modest attitude, even after her resignation from the central committee and the organisation - just before a split that saw the complete demise of the organisation - she had by far the largest number of supporters from what was left of the Fedayeen inside and outside the country.
After all she had endured, the last straw must have been facing threats to her life a few years later by those she had considered fellow comrades. But even then when I met her in Paris, at a time when many of us worried about her safety and her life, she remained unaffected by all the fuss, concentrating on her own work. I was reminded of the woman who used to travel from Kurdistan to Tehran, when revolutionary guards, the police and the army were looking for her, with no fear for her own safety. In my view a women who in very difficult circumstances has shown unprecedented bravery and relentless adherence to political principles.
Of course none of this matters to mainstream Iranian feminists (male or female) who concentrate on the career prospects of professional women. These days the dominant feminist discourse is used by neo-liberal capital to justify the exploitation of the working class in a globalised economy. What matters are measures that allow middle class and upper class women progress in the political, economic and social spheres, yet the effect of such measures on the day-to-day life of working class women is more problematic, often negative.
In the era of individualistic, neoliberal feminism, why should anyone bother about women such as Mastoureh Ahmadzadeh - she isn’t the CEO of a company, she is not a minister, she is not the daughter of a famous ayatollah. Her extraordinary life is not even worth recognition of her existence in obituaries of her father. Yet for some of us, she remains the very embodiment of what was revolutionary, courageous and principled in the old OIPFG.
1. At Siahkal on the Caspian Sea, February 8 1971, Fedayeen guerrillas attacked a gendarmerie post, killing three policemen and freeing two arrested guerrillas. Thirteen men were convicted and executed for the incident, including two who were in prison at the time.
2. Savak - the shah’s brutal secret police force.