Going to the beach, Iranian-style

TEHRAN, Iran — Every year, thousands of Iranians flock to the seaside to enjoy the sand and water. This year was no different. With the tumultuous days of the election and its aftermath barely behind them, people headed out of the city to relax and spend quality time with family, if only a for a few days.

Tehran is a sprawling metropolis, with a population of 7.7 million, an estimated 3 million cars, 2 million motorcycles, rapid urbanization, political tensions and skies filled with pollution. Students in Iran have a three-month summer vacation, and a government employee receives about four weeks vacation a year.

So when the long summer vacation months arrive, where do Tehranis go to let off some steam?

For many, Dubai, Turkey and Cyprus are popular choices, because they’re close by, issue visas more easily (Turkey doesn’t require a visa) and travel agencies offer packages with good deals. Over the past few years, other more exotic and diverse destinations have become popular among a well-off segment of the population: South Africa, Thailand and Brazil are high on the list.

But for those who can’t afford such travel, or who want to spend their vacation time close to home, cities in Iran's north are ideal. 

Iran on the whole is a hot, dry country. There are two major deserts in the central-eastern parts of the country, Dasht-e-Kavir and Kavir-e-Loot. Southern cities such as Bushehr and Bandar-Abbas become unbearably hot during summer months. The harsh climate of the south has made the coast of Caspian Sea in the north a haven for summer travelers. Only a three-hour drive from the capital, the coastal cities are among the rare places in the country where lush green forests cover mountains and rice fields fill the air with their aroma.

Beach-goers in Iran.

Three provinces — Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan — cover the coast of the Caspian sea. According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Mazandaran, more than 12 million Iranians visit the Caspian Coast in the first weeks of the Iranian new year alone.

At 143,000 square miles (roughly the size of Montana), the Caspian Sea is the largest lake in the world. The sea is bordered by Kazakhstan in the northeast, Turkmenistan in the southeast, Azerbaijan in the southwest, Russia in the northwest and Iran in the south. The Caspian is abundant in oil and gas reserves, and the source of about 90 percent of the world’s caviar.

Those Iranian vacationers who do not have their own villas can rent rooms from locals. An overnight stay could cost anything between $50 to $1,000 and up, depending on the time of year, the quality of the villa and the location.

Activities include horseback riding in the forest, boat rides and barbecuing, although the focal point of any stay here is the beach. And despite what observers of the Islamic Republic might suspect, women visitors to the Iranian shores of the Caspian Sea have almost as much free rein as men to enjoy it.

Along the coast, there are guarded areas where women can swap their chadors (black fabric that covers the body head to toe) and head-scarves for bikinis. These women-only areas have been closed off from the beach side and well into the sea by walls of canvas.

The rules are: no men allowed in, boys should be under the age of 6 and no cell phones or cameras in hand. The scene is a mixture of hip, young women wearing exceptionally modern — and skimpy — bikinis, and others content enough to lie on the sand in their underwear.

“I come here every year,” said Ensiyeh Pouladvand, a computer sciences student of Azad University in Tehran. “There is nothing like swimming in the open water or lying on the sand and watching the blue sky. It really gives you a sense of freedom.”

According to many, however, the setup leaves room for improvement. “The section is too small for the large number of people who come here during hot summer months,” said Taraneh Firouzabadi, a high school student from Tehran, “and sometimes it’s not very clean.”

Raha Askari, meantime, has only one major concern. “It’s very difficult for us to get a tan,” she said, “because there is a very limited number of places where we can take the layers of clothes off under the sun.”

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women have been prohibited from baring skin in public. Men and women are segregated in many places. There are different lines for airport security, and entrance to universities. Men and women have different reading rooms at the library. They pray separately in mosques, and ride on separated sections of buses and metros. Even weddings are separate affairs, with women in one room and men in the other.

Swimming as a family is not an option without access to a private pool. Even in places along the Caspian Sea, women must wear full Islamic attire to swim with their family. Often they go swimming at dusk, aiming to be even less visible.

Segregated beaches are not a new phenomenon in the Islamic world. Other countries in the Middle East, such as Egypt, have them.

In Iran, too, it’s far from a new concept, although the "rules" are still evolving. But in 2007 the government devoted a more clear-cut budget to what was called the “Cleansing Sea Project” or “Tarhe Salem-sazi Darya.” Under the new program, more sections of the beach have been allotted for women to go swimming. Lifeguards trained and hired by the Life Saving and Diving Federation of Iran now keep a watchful eye on swimmers.

And over the summer, the Swimming Federation of Iran held its first ever swimming competition for women in open waters. Ten teams from cities across the country competed in the race in the coastal city of Nowshahr. The team from Tehran won, though many hailed it a victory for all Iranian women.