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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 March 2006, 13:11 GMT
Female frustrations of Iran reporting

By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

Women living and working in Iran, particularly those working for the foreign media, are finding all kinds of difficulties strewn in their path, writes Frances Harrison.

It's the first time I've had to state my religion to cover a story.

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I was standing outside the Norwegian embassy in Tehran during a protest over the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

An elderly and rather well-heeled couple on their evening stroll had stopped to see what all the commotion was about and unfortunately had recognised me from TV.

Very loudly they started saying: "Oh, you are from the BBC," and proclaiming it to all around.

That triggered the wrath of a police officer who started ranting at me about how wrong it had been to print the cartoons, as if I had personally been responsible as the only foreigner present.

That was when I had to state my religion - throwing in for good measure that my husband was Iranian.

Instantly the mood changed - they melted into sweetness and light and suddenly the elderly couple were saying: "Oh yes, you are the one who tells the truth on air, unlike the others," and the policeman was agreeing.

Ladylike

That night was one of countless cartoon protests in Tehran that have damaged the embassies of five European countries.

But it was one of the more surreal.

The crowd threw stones and the odd petrol bomb and then managed to wrest the name plaque off the wall of the embassy.

Increasingly there seems to be a desire on the part of zealous officials here to separate male and female journalists
A female photographer I knew suddenly rushed out of the focus of activity, shouting. It turned out one of the bearded Islamic vigilantes had pinched her bum.

There is no doubt being female sometimes gives you a different perspective on a story.

Like the time we were invited to celebrate the founding of the basij - an Islamic vigilante force.

Over breakfast a man repeatedly announced that this was not a suitable trip for women - it would be very tough and arduous and so on.

As it turned out all we had to do was sit in the back of a rather chilly pick-up truck and drive around looking at a human chain that was supposed to symbolise the willingness of Iranians to defend their country's borders.

The toughest part was during the parade - getting rid of the basij who wanted all women to sit down on chairs in a ladylike fashion instead of charging about.

And of course keeping every single strand of hair covered lest some self-appointed male guardian of morality take it upon himself to tick you off.

Since the man who told me off for my less than perfect hijab was carrying a gun I didn't argue back. Still it was a step forward because the previous year we had been told women weren't allowed at all.

'No women'

Increasingly there seems to be a desire on the part of zealous officials here to separate male and female journalists.

That can present problems if like me, you are a female reporter with a male cameraman.

At the anniversary of the revolution rally recently we went through endless security checks.

At every one I was told to stand aside and wait - clearly put in my place.

Then someone would come and tell me off for waiting there.

The female body searchers were constantly trying to send me back somewhere else to have my bags x-rayed.

By the time I got to the platform where we were supposed to film I already felt like I had fought several battles.

I started climbing the stairs and an unshaven man barred my way.

"No women."

At which point, utterly exasperated, I told him no coverage from the BBC in that case - I would go home.

He scurried off to consult and then came back and said I was allowed in after all.

One small victory, but short-lived.

Iranian TV spent the next week abusing me for my coverage of the event - claiming I'd deliberately downplayed the number of people attending.

Next year - if I'm still here - I think I may carry out my threat and stay at home.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 4 March, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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