From hijab to skimpy bikini: behind the walled beach

A place to relax ... an Iranian woman emerges from the water after riding a jetski at Kish Island.
A place to relax ... an Iranian woman emerges from the water after riding a jetski at Kish Island. Photo: Getty Images

As the scorching rays of the Middle Eastern sun bore down, I plunged into the sea, desperately happy to feel cool water against my skin. I had been wrapped in a hijab all day in 45-degree heat. A dip at the beach offered the only respite.

But in the Islamic Republic of Iran, women must not show their hair or skin, let alone wear bikinis in public. A woman caught wearing a miniskirt could be sentenced to 50 lashes. Could wearing a bikini land me in jail?

With its white-sand beaches, tax-free shopping and luxury hotels, Kish Island is the Iranian equivalent of Hawaii or Bali. It's well known for being more relaxed than the mainland and is popular with holidaying Persians. Iranian women can be a bit more carefree, mingling with the opposite sex, riding jet skis and walking on the beach with their headscarves loosened and trousers rolled up. But this island is no Ibiza. The strict laws of the Islamic regime apply.

Dancing is forbidden, as I discovered while watching a live Farsi band at a restaurant. Iranians make do with clapping their hands to the music.

Though beachside touts offered me bootleg booze in whispered hisses ("Absolut vodka? Johnnie Walker?"), alcohol is otherwise illegal, meaning no pina coladas by the pool. And while the island is surrounded by calm beaches fringed by swaying palm trees, men and women are forbidden to swim together. A bikini in public? It seemed unlikely.

There is one place on the island where bikinis and skimpy thongs are permitted, however: behind the three-metre walls of a women-only beach.

Eager to escape the sweaty confines of my hijab, I paid the entrance fee and passed a security desk, staffed by uniformed female security guards, to ensure no cameras or mobile phones made it past the gate.

Beyond the doors was a beach that could have been anywhere in the world. The sand was lined with umbrellas and towels. A kiosk served cold drinks and food. There was even a scuba diving centre.

Women swam in pairs, splashing knee-deep in the clear Gulf water - smiling, carefree and happy. Mothers sat on towels next to their daughters. A group of girlfriends, shrieking with laughter, stood behind me as I joined a queue at the kiosk for a juice and a kebab.

"Do you like Iran?" one asked shyly. Her friends dissolved into giggles, but their curiosity about a blonde Western woman got the better of them.

After chatting for a few minutes, I chose a spot on the sand near the lifeguard tower, staffed by uniformed female lifeguards. Every so often, a piercing whistle would sound and the lifeguard would wave her arms at a woman who had swum too far beyond the boundaries.

Compared with the dour chadors and manteaus worn on the other side of the wall, the sea of bikinis, bold, colourful and skimpy, was brilliantly eye-catching.

Old habits die hard, though, and some women chose to wear more modest maillots.

The beach might be walled and free of men but it offered a small taste of freedom to these Iranian women: a respite from a regime that regulates hemlines and headscarfs.

Here, all women could swim and sunbathe with the rare, sweet sensation of sunlight on their skin.

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