BEIRUT, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)--Like many Shiite Muslim girls in southern Lebanon, Rima Naji was married early, at the tender age of 13. By 15 she had delivered her first child--a healthy boy--and by 19 her husband Sheikh Fadi Abboud was dead.
"He was martyred on the 10th of February 1995. He was 21 years old," she says. "Thank God he died according to the objectives of Hizbullah."
A member of Hizbullah or "Party of God," the Shiite Islamic resistance group that controls southern Lebanon, Aboud died in a commando operation against the Israeli army, which occupied the south from 1982 to 2000. His death was not extraordinary. During the lengthy occupation, scores of Lebanese were displaced, maimed and killed in a bloody guerilla war. When the Israeli army withdrew in May 2000, grinding their tanks out from bunkers across the south, Hizbullah--which is listed as a terrorist organization by the Pentagon--emerged victorious.
No Regrets About Husband's Fate
A staunch, pious woman veiled completely in black, Naji shows little regret about her ultimately fateful marriage.
"When I married him, I knew he followed the party. I knew I had a martyr at home," she says. Leaning closer, she confesses her ambitions for her sons, the youngest of whom was a nursling when Aboud died.
"When my sons tell me: 'I hope to become a martyr one day,' I say: 'I hope so too. I hope God chooses you as a martyr.'
"Although a mother doesn't need to tell the son of a martyr to do it," she says, "she may guide him towards it, but really, it's innate. He automatically has a feeling that he must follow his father."
After her husband died, Naji began studying to become a religious Sheik, finding comfort and acceptance of her husband's death in Islam.
"Although it's sad that he died, it also brings me enormous pride," she says of the honor her husband earned by dying as a martyr professed in the Koran. "It's more respectful to die as a martyr than a normal death."
Admired for Husbands' Heroism
Deified in paradise and venerated on earth for fighting Israel, Hizbullah's martyrs are nothing short of heroes in southern Lebanon. Their wives are in turn admired, because of their husband's sacrifice.
"I have no problems in the community. I only get respect," says Naji.
Hizbullah has built up an impenetrable support network for the women. Through the Hizbullah martyrs' wives association some 2500 families in Lebanon receive a monthly salary, free health care and schooling for their children--to the tune of $1,200 each a month.
"We do everything in our power to make them feel they are not missing anything," says Mohsan Shaheen, a spokesperson for the association. "Anything a martyr's wife wants, we will give it to her, basically, because her husband sacrificed himself. The only thing we can't provide for her is to bring him back."
On top of sending their children to the best schools and universities abroad if they choose, the association runs vocational training classes and seminars for the woman and offers a dating service to help them remarry if they wish.
Remarriage Is Recommended
Remarriage is "strongly recommended" by Hizbullah, says Shaheen. Men often approached the association looking to marry a martyr's wife, he says. "Her husband sacrificed himself and that's an honor." Nevertheless, he admits that twice martyrs' wives had remarried, only to be widowed once again.
For Naji, the financial and emotional support of the association has been life-saving. Considering her lack of skills and education, she may have been destitute without it. Somewhat indebted, she pledges her loyalty to the party.
"I can now help Hizbullah by bringing up the next generation of Hizbullah," she says.
Like Naji, many Hizbullah widows speak fearlessly about what they view as the martyrdom of their husbands. Ibtisam Zoorgoof, 28, is an exception. A fragile, intellectual woman with mournful eyes, Zoorgoof buckles with grief as she describes her status as a widow.
"It will always hurt me to think that I was expecting a child when he died. That my daughter didn't know her father," she says.
Pregnant when her husband Ahmed Fadlallah was killed in a Hizbullah operation in 1999, Zoorgoof has struggled to come to terms with the loss.
"I tell my daughter: 'your father is a hero.' I take her to his grave. But this feeling of loneliness and despair . . ." she says, her voice growing distant.
Since Fadlallah's death, Zoorgoof has relied heavily on the Hizbullah martyrs' wives association, which is helping her buy a house and pays for her to go to university, where she is studying Arabic literature.
"Hizbullah is like a family. It takes care of us, provides for us," she says.
Alarmed by U.S. Calls to Dismantle Hizbullah
Completely dependent on Hizbullah, women such as Zoorgoof are directly threatened by the United States' recent calls for Hizbullah to dismantle. Visiting Beirut in May this year, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell demanded Hizbullah disarm and that the Lebanese army be deployed to the Israeli border.
Since 2000, Hizbullah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has controlled south Lebanon autonomously. This decision is ultimately condoned by Syria, which has occupied Lebanon since the end of its civil war, and views Hizbullah as a card to play in any future peace negotiations with Israel.
Nizar Hamzeh, a politics professor at the American University of Beirut, dismisses Powell's call for Hizbullah to withdraw from the border as ludicrous. "Withdraw to where? This is nonsense. The people live there. This is a civilian resistance," he says.
Hamzeh says Hizbullah is still a force to be reckoned with in Lebanon. Three years after the Israeli withdrawal, it still commands enormous respect and loyalty from many Lebanese. Its generous social-welfare programs and infrastructure projects in southern Lebanon have only boosted its popularity. It is also firmly engaged in Lebanese politics, occupying seats in the Lebanese parliament.
Dismantling the party that has a constituency of 500,000 supporters could only be done by force, says Hamzeh. "And this will mean a civil war. It doesn't seem that Hizbullah will just pack its bags and leave."
Hizbullah Budget Larger Than Government's
Hamzeh also estimates the budget of the group at over $1 billion a year, more than that of the Lebanese government. Fifty percent of this figure comes from Iran, says Hamzeh, which as a Shiite theocracy holds a spiritual veto over the party.
The remaining 50 percent is the fruit of Hizbullah's own business ventures inside Lebanon and abroad and donations to the party, he says.
Even if Iran was pressured into cutting funding to Hizbullah, the group is self-sustaining, says Hamzeh. Yet he thinks it unlikely that the group will lose its funding, especially regarding the martyrs' association.
"Even (Iran's President Mohammed) Khatami would not abandon support for the martyrs' association," he says. "It has to do with morality. Supporting those who fought for the party."
At present it appears the future of Hizbullah is ensured, not only financially but by the willingness of many of its women to offer up their offspring.
"God chose my husband to be a martyr and a Muslim, and that's a great honor," says Naji, enamored with the promises of glory outlined in the Koran. "I hope my children become martyrs and my father and brothers too. Inshallah," she says. God willing.
Sarah Smiles is an Australian freelance journalist based in Beirut.