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Going to the beach, Iranian-style

A few hours' drive from the capital of one of the Islamic world's most conservative countries, one can find a respite from the heat and society's strict rules — just ask the women in bikinis.

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.