Female firefighters find they can take the heat in Iran

The rewards are great - and the disappointments as powerful as any felt by firefighters around the world.

But at Station No. 9 in Karaj, west of Tehran, a small unit prides itself on being like few others: the only squad of women firefighters in the Middle East.

Not every rescue requires a feminine touch. But in the Islamic Republic, which tolerates little public mixing of the genders, the 11 women here are breaking new ground and creating a model for cities across the country. They also represent a strain of pragmatic progressivism in Iran that is rarely matched elsewhere in the region.

Women are still subject to a strict Islamic dress code here, though at the moment it is loosely enforced. But there is a women's police division. Women parliamentarians and even vice presidents and a Nobel Peace Prize winner voice their opinions loudly. And in Iran's roiling political atmosphere, women can be criticized as harshly as men.

Wearing polished silver helmets - with only a head scarf underneath to distinguish their garb from the men's - this squad slides down the fire pole when the alarm sounds, just like their male peers.

"When we rescue a child, and the mother cries and comes to us to thank us, we feel so good," says Mahboubeh Khoshsolat.

Finding a balance between Islam and gender issues is easier in Iran than in some other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, much less hold office.

A women's unit might have made a difference in the holy city of Mecca in March 2002, during a blaze at a girls' school. Some 15 girls died and 50 were injured when Saudi religious police, according to eyewitnesses, beat the girls and kept them from leaving the burning building because they were not wearing "correct" Islamic dress.

Firefighters here in Iran, men and women alike, say men have not hesitated to help in gender-sensitive situations. "Of course we still do it," says Ali Aghayari, a mustachioed 25-year veteran of the department. "It can be a matter of life and death."

But the women think their presence inspires others to take on jobs usually reserved for men. "100 percent," says Zahra Haji, who has been with the Karaj force since the women's unit was created three years ago.

The women are part of a department that includes 11 stations and 375 firefighters. Divided into three shifts, they work 24 hours on, 48 hours off.

While they respond to every alarm alongside the men, these women also describe rescues in which their gender helped get the job done - such as the time a large woman had fallen into an narrow underground septic tank, up to her neck in sewage, and needed rescue with a harness and ropes.

"I've seen them in action and they are good, they are strong - sometimes they are better than the men," says Mr. Aghayari. When they are in protective gear, fighting alongside the men, he says he can barely tell the difference.

"Physically we can manage it, we don't think we are anything less [than the men]," says Zeinab Karimi. Her father's tales of his work as a firefighter shaped her as a girl. When ads for the positions appeared, he mentioned them to Karimi, who had never thought she'd fight fires herself. "We believe in our abilities."

Those abilities are honed by training the same way as the men's, rappelling down a multistory training wall, jumping from heights, carrying the injured, and finding escape routes. Members of the unit have long experience with competitive sports, and their daily routine includes 30 minutes of vigorous exercise.

Such preparation can pay off. Karimi remembers a call at 3:30 a.m. A gas truck was burning so hot that a neighboring building caught fire.

"The whole area was lit up like day, and it was tough. [T]here was the possibility of an explosion," recalls Karimi. "It was so frightening, but [we] controlled the fire. Even our gloves were burning"

Not all stories end happily. Ms. Haji relates a call this summer when the unit was unable to resuscitate a toddler who had fallen in a pool. Several of the women went to the boy's funeral to offer comfort. "It was my first bitter experience," says Ms. Haji. "But they were appreciating us."

Such performance has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in Iran, where a number of cities have expressed interest. "Karaj is a good model," says Gholamreza Abbasi, head of the program. "The [Islamic] system will accept it, and people want it."

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