Technology gives Iranian women freedom to swim

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The Independent Online

New uses of technology could this summer make the sexual segregation on Iran's Caspian Riviera a little less severe. Under plans drawn up in Mazandaran Province, fibreglass barriers and water sprays will shield beach-going women from the eyes of male strangers.

The authorities will erect fibre-glass walls that act like one-way mirrors so that women can see out but nobody else can see in. Where the barriers end, 60 or 70 metres into the sea, water sprays will foil seaborne peeping toms, said Mr Abbasnejad, a Mazandaran tourism official quoted in the daily Farhang-e Ashti.

Segregated swimming is nothing new in Iran. In the large resorts of the Caspian and Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, women sunbathe and swim behind barriers separated from the men's swimming area by buffer zones. "Women wear the skimpiest bikinis at the beach these days," said a woman veteran of Caspian resorts. "Sometimes they even sunbathe topless."

Young men and women can get around the rules by hiring boats to swim together out at sea. And in private seaside compounds, where rules are less rigorously imposed, women swim with men in just T-shirts and loose trousers rather than the full covering demanded by religious authorities.

After the Islamic revolution in 1979, strict Islamic morals were enforced across Iran and public modesty was strictly controlled. Women had to cover their hair and bodies and men were forbidden from wearing shorts or exposing their chests.

But over 28 years such rules have eroded. In recent years hemlines have climbed while headscarves have slipped coquettishly back. In holiday resorts the rules tend to be less rigidly enforced, but occasional crackdowns prevent a slide in public morality.

During the Safavid dynasty, from 1502 to 1722, the royal court used to summer in the Caspian, a tradition prolonged in the 20th century with the establishment of expensive beach resorts. Most of the shore is now a concrete-ridden string of restaurants, hotels, chalets and holiday compounds.

A three-hour drive from Tehran, the Caspian is Iran's Riviera, with a narrow plain of paddyfields and orchards separating the sea from forested mountains where bears and leopards roam around ruined Mongol castles. The beaches are less pleasant than those of the Persian Gulf coast, but the climate, proximity to the capital and more attractive hinterland attract the hordes.

"This is part of a project to allow freer use of Caspian beaches," said Mr Abbasnejad. He said the partitions would be up by 5 June for the summer rush. But he did not say whether the women would be allowed to see into men's bathing areas. Although women can now watch sportsmen in shorts on television, and wrestlers are no longer ordered to wear T-shirts under their leotards, it seems a stretch to reveal near-naked male bodies to chaste feminine eyes.

"They know damn well that women can get as turned on as men," said the woman resort-goer. "So sadly, they'll probably keep the buffer zones."