Drip Dry

Operation Wholesome Sea: Iran Coast Guard Forces Women Off Beaches

“Operation Wholesome Sea” makes sure Iran’s beautiful beaches remain for men only. On most of them women, even those covered from head to toe, are forbidden to swim at all.

Hannah Allam/MCT, via Getty

by Kimia Barzegar

On the first weekend of the American beach season, most people in the United States won’t be pondering how difficult, frustrating and humiliating it is to try to enjoy the sea if you are swaddled in multiple layers of cloth. But in Iran, there are some sectors of society that seem obsessed with enforcing the rules against exposing a female’s flesh or, indeed, the shape of her body. Among those groups: the Iranian coast guard, which has mounted an operation it calls “Wholesome Sea” to patrol the coast for women who might offend against the draconian dress codes or dare to get their cloaked bodies wet in sight of men.—TDB

TEHRAN — Altogether, Iran’s coastlines stretch for 2,700 kilometers ( almost 1,700 miles) in the north on the Caspian Sea and in the South on the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. For Iranian women, however, these vast beaches are a reminder of nothing but prohibitions and frustrated yearnings. On most of them, women are not allowed to swim at all, regardless of whether they are alone or are accompanied by their families. They can only enter water on beaches specially designed for women. And those, as the saying goes, are separate, and not equal.

A Woman-only beach is a part of the sea enclosed on four sides—yes, all four sides—without any view in or out. Yet even these can be found in only 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 sunbathe. With its extensive coastlines, Iran has the potential to promote this kind tourism but it is, to say the least, unrealized. Because women cannot swim freely, tourists from around the world just stay away.

In the meantime, Iranian women have to cope with highly restrictive rules and regulations. The shores of the Caspian offer the most attractive strands in Iran but, especially in tourist seasons, police officers fan out across the sand to make sure no women dare to take a dip.

The first barrier for women is the Islamic dress code or hijab. If there are no police around, you might see women who have waded into the water, fully dressed in coats, pants and headscarves. Some find it too cumbersome to swim with such heavy clothing, as you might expect, so they opt to take some small pleasure from just walking on the beach.

The central feature of the Iranian coast guard’s “Wholesome Sea” project, according to the officials themselves, is it to separate men from women on the beaches. Ali-Mohammad Salami, the commander of the coast guard, boasted in the August of last year that the operation was an “an innovative initiative by the Islamic Republic” and hoped to provide more control and supervision over the shorelines.

“In implementing the project,” said Salami, “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 [the Islamic Republic’s militias] 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. Even this mode of swimming comes under the heavy criticism of religious elements, some of the officials and the conservative media, perhaps fearful that a wet chador will be just too provocative.

This year, before the start of the Iranian new year on March 21, the commander of the security forces in the southern province of Bushehr told a press conference, emphatically, that co-ed 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 are 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.”

This article is adapted from a post by Kimia Barzegar on IranWire.com.