Fire Station Nine in the Tehran satellite city of Karaj prides itself on welcoming 11 female staff into its squad as part of a pilot programme launched three years ago during  the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami.

Leila Ebrahimi, 23, a swimming champion, said: "We took the same tests and training as men, there were no privileges or positive discrimination."

Ebrahimi joined the brigade despite family disapproval.

"I love my job. It is very exciting, but all my relatives were  tut-tutting at first, especially men," she said.

Women in the Islamic Republic cannot be judges or presidents and they need the permission of their husband to get a passport.

Sara Shabandoust, a 25-year-old firefighter with a black belt in karate, said "somebody has to break the taboos - we pioneered".

'Emotional' excuse

Hoping to get her heavy goods licence soon to be able  to drive the fire truck and be independent of male colleagues, Shabandoust does not feel that gender should be used as an excuse for excluding women.

"They say women cannot be judges because they are emotional. This is not a good reason. I have learned to control my emotions and be professional in the most traumatic scenes," she said.

"They say women cannot be judges because they are emotional. This is not a good reason. I have learned to control my emotions and be professional in the most traumatic scenes"

Sara Shabandoust
Firefighter

Her opinion was shared by Mahbubeh Khoshsolat, who cited her  recent experience of pulling two male construction workers out of a collapsed sewer.

"It has a lot to do with having the right technique and less to do with physical strength," she said.

They work 24-hour shifts along with their male colleagues, and even slide down the pole for emergency alerts - be they accident scenes, burning homes or drowning children.

Hardly distinguishable from men in their polished metal helmets  and fireproof coats, they say even women are shocked to discover they have been saved by a member of the same sex.

Winning trust

Gholamreza Abbasi, the station chief, said that "despite their initial distrust, people have been calling to thank them and asking how they can get their daughters into the squad".

Abbasi added that the salary could be an incentive in a country with soaring unemployment rates.

They earn about $300 a month, which is equal to an experienced government employee's income.

Women firefighters earn $300 a
month - a decent salary in Iran

The decision by the Islamic republic has been hailed as a  positive sign to open more doors to women, who have been fighting for equal rights in inheritance, child custody and divorce as well as a more active role on the political scene.

But sceptics see the move as "window dressing" or as the latest move by government hardliners to segregate the sexes - by  providing women rescuers for women in danger.

They cite a bill proposed by the conservative parliament in 1998 that required all private and state hospitals to fully segregate health services offered to men and women in accordance with strict Islamic regulations.
 
Legislation

The draft legislation drew strong criticism from the general  public and health workers and was eventually rejected by the  Guardian Council vetting body, but only on the grounds that it would increase public expenditure.

"These projects (female firefighters) are not because they are thoughtful about women. They only care about separating males from females," said Golbarg, a doctor and a fiery feminist who asked for her full name not to be used.

But others disagree.

Ali, 27, a student of political science, said: "I think it is a sign of some progress."

"And the fact that women can now work as firefighters does not stop them from claiming other rights."