By Kimia Barzegar, Citizen-Journalist
Iran has a combined coastline of 2,700 km, in the north with the Caspian Sea and in the south with the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. For Iranian women, however, this long coastline is a reminder of nothing but prohibitions and frustrated yearnings. On most beaches, women are not allowed to swim, regardless of whether they are alone or are accompanied by their families. They can only enter water on beaches specially designed for women.
A Woman-only beach is a part of the sea enclosed on four sides without any view in or out. Nevertheless, they can be found only in a few coastal cities.
In most countries in the world, beaches are among the main tourist attractions and the tourists spend a good amount of money to swim and sun-bathe on beaches. With its extensive coastlines, Iran has the potential to promote this kind tourism. The tourism industry, however, has not benefited from this natural gift in any way. Women cannot swim freely, so tourists from around the world stay away.
Foreign tourists aside, Iranian women have to cope with highly restrictive rules and regulations. The shores of the Caspian Sea offer the most attractive beaches in Iran but, especially in tourist seasons, police officers fan out to prevent women from swimming.
The first barrier for women is the Islamic dress code or hijab. If there are no police around, we can see women who have waded into the sea, fully dressed in manteaux, pants and headscarves. Some find it too cumbersome to swim with such heavy clothing, so they get a small amount of pleasure by just walking on the beach.
For years now, the Iranian coast guard has been implementing a project called “Wholesome Sea”. One of the central features of this project, according to the coast guard officials themselves, it to separate men from women on the beaches. Commenting on the third year of the project, Ali-Mohammad Salami, the commander of the coast guard, boasted in the August of last year that the Wholesome Sea Project was an “an innovative initiative by the Islamic Republic” and would hopefully provide more control and supervision over the shorelines.
“In implementing the project,” he said, “we have obtained the cooperation of women and female police officers. We have hired, on a temporary basis, women from other organizations such as the Basij who were qualified and were interested in cooperating with the coast guard.”
The restrictions have turned most women into mere spectators who watch men swimming. On very rare occasions, of course, they walk into the sea, heavy clothing and all. Frequently, however, even this mode of swimming comes under the heavy criticism of religious elements, some of the officials and the conservative media.
This year, before the start of the Iranian new year on march 21st, the commander of the security forces in the southern province of Bushehr told a press conference that mixed swimming on the beaches of the province will not be allowed. Mixed swimming, said Commander Heidar Abbaszadeh, was against public decency. “It would provoke an unfavorable reaction in the public opinion. The police is not against swimming, but if people on the beaches witness that young men and women swim together, they would get the wrong idea about our province.”