tehranbureau An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora

Ah, Summertime


29 Jun 2011 22:35Comments

And the living is not so easy.... Amid the heat, state crackdown on nude forearms, heavy makeup, and overaccentuated curves, women find unusual ways to cope.

3_8602020578_L600.jpg[ dispatch ] Summertime Tehran can be testing place for the female sex. Each year, as the mercury climbs to the high thirties, several thousand harbingers of hot weather appear in the city's main squares and boulevards. They wear black chadors that sweep the ground, and their mission is to purge the female crowd of nude forearms, heavy makeup and over-accentuated curves. Resistance is futile, as they have backup: Standing behind them are male Basiji guards, and, for problematic cases, a convenient police van ready to transport offenders to a more discreet location.

With the approaching summer heat and the impending threat of publicly displayed bare skin, authorities devote considerable manpower to enforcing the "law of hejab and dignity." This year, 70,000 moral police have reportedly been deployed to enforce proper hejab, cracking down not only on women, but also on men sporting tight denim, Western t-shirts and "un-Islamic" hairstyles. Minoo Aslani, the head of Basiji Women, has mobilized her subordinates, announcing a "support of hejab" rally to be held after Friday prayer on July 2. International congresses and workshops for teachers on the "ideology of hejab and dignity" are also on the agenda, according to official news sources. While such spectacles are an annual occurrence, several opposition websites have drawn attention to the unusual severity of enforcement this year, suggesting that authorities are using the hejab law to react to the most recent smattering of Green Movement protests.

For an average Tehrani woman, all of this portends an array of quotidian limitations that go beyond dress code. Taxi drivers, who say they have been threatened with losing their licenses if caught transporting a woman with bad hejab, hesitate to stop for moderately dressed female passengers. While usually loosely enforced, the ban on females smoking in public is now strictly observed in popular cafes, at least one of which was recently shuttered, purportedly for tolerating improper dress. In addition, tampons, which are generally hard to find in Iran, have been discontinued from sale at some drug stores and supermarkets. According to one pharmacist, their import is now prohibited, though this could not be confirmed.

Local women generally remain undaunted by such impositions. Most shrug off the heightened policing as a seasonal inconvenience, and limit their protest to occasional grumbling as they close an extra buttonhole on their manteau. To cope with the heat, many seek refuge in one of Tehran's few female-only public zones--the only places where they are free from the rules of Islamic dress. "It gets so hot, sometimes you just want to rip it off," said a smiling "Setareh," a bikini-wearing student who sunned herself at a public, gender-segregated swimming pool on a recent weekday afternoon. "It feels so suffocating."

Several squares away at Behesht-e Madar ("Mother's Paradise"), a public women's park in the north of the city, Fatameh, a middle-aged wedding photographer and mother of three, invoked the same analogy. "It takes your breath from you," she said, tucking in her chin and pulling an imaginary drape over head to mimic a chador wearer. "Here, at least, it's comfortable."

Opened in 2008 by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Behesht-e Madar is a male-free zone on every day except Friday. While criticized by some for promoting gender segregation, the high-walled park remains the city's lone public respite where women can shed their chadors, manteaus, and headscarves, play outdoor sports and relax in the shade.

But even here, there are strict rules. After passing through the guarded gate, one is inevitably tempted to spread a blanket on on a grassy, evergreen-shaded knoll, only to discover that all of the 50-acre park's green patches are off-limits. The generally relaxed atmosphere is thus marred by the incessant whistling of a frumpily uniformed female park attendant, who spends her day chasing children and groups of women off the grass. Picnickers like Fatameh, who like to pass time here with family and neighbors, are therefore resigned to sitting in the dirt and on the edges of sidewalks. "She's insane. When the men are here on Fridays, she doesn't chase anyone off the grass," Fatameh comments as the park attendant bustles by. She then returns to drumming a beat on the side of her metal tea thermos. Her friends break into a spontaneous dance, hollering jovially.

"Orchid," a public swimming pool near busy Vanak Square, also has its quirky regulations. Upon entering, women are required to deposit their mobile phones at the reception, thus preventing visitors from proliferating photos of their half-nude co-patrons. By all means, there would be plenty to photograph: Far from being a place to cool off, the pool is essentially a showcase of repressed female sexuality. Dozens of bronzing, bare-chested bodies flank the water's edge, vying for a prime position in the sun. Here, at least, dress code is nonexistent, ranging from one-piece swim suits to under-sized thongs and slinky underwear sets. The facility is almost always near full capacity, but no one goes in the water save for adolescent girls. The rest prefer to scrutinize their figures in the large mirror on the far wall, incessantly spraying their appendages with oil and water to prevent sunburn.

It is therefore little wonder that the pool is protected from street view by 30-foot metal walls, though even these are not always enough to enforce gender segregation. According to a June 28 report by BBC Persian, several men on motorcycles recently broke through the walls of an unnamed Tehran public swimming pool during women's hours, harassing patrons and capturing them on video. While authorities initially refuted the news as mere rumors, Majles MP Fatameh Aliah admitted that the perpetrators had been arrested. She later recanted this claim.

But even such news, while scandalizing, is unlikely to discourage Tehrani women from seeking out the few places that offer them relative freedom from the prying gaze of men and the scrutiny of authorities. At 3:30 p.m., 30 minutes before the after-work male hours, the pool's female patrons pick up their beach ware and head for the locker rooms. After fixing their makeup and coifs, they wrap their sun-heated bodies in knee-length coats, throw on their headscarves and brace themselves for the real world behind the wall. "See you tomorrow," they tell each other.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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