Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hejab at the Seaside in Iran

Women required to maintain strict dress requirements when swimming in public.
By Javad Montazeri
  • Municipal beach in Tonokabon, in the western part of Mazandaran province. The sign on the wall says “Men’s Swimming Area”, but no separate area for women is marked out. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Municipal beach in Tonokabon, in the western part of Mazandaran province. The sign on the wall says “Men’s Swimming Area”, but no separate area for women is marked out. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Men can go swimming in trunks while women have to enter the water fully clad. This is the Caspian Sea at Tonokabon. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Men can go swimming in trunks while women have to enter the water fully clad. This is the Caspian Sea at Tonokabon. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Beachwear creates a striking contrast between men and women. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Beachwear creates a striking contrast between men and women. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Even at the seaside, women must be on the lookout for police patrols on the lookout for “bad hejab”. This is Chamkhaleh in Gilan province. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Even at the seaside, women must be on the lookout for police patrols on the lookout for “bad hejab”. This is Chamkhaleh in Gilan province. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • A family outing, at Sari in Mazandaran. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    A family outing, at Sari in Mazandaran. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Chamkhaleh. Talk of segregated swimming areas has never come to anything. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Chamkhaleh. Talk of segregated swimming areas has never come to anything. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • A child tries out paddling in the sea at Chalous, also in Mazandaran. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    A child tries out paddling in the sea at Chalous, also in Mazandaran. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Holiday snap at Chalous. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Holiday snap at Chalous. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Family swimming at Chalous. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Family swimming at Chalous. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Families rent villas or stay in hotels. The beach at Sari. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Families rent villas or stay in hotels. The beach at Sari. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Iranian women have yet to take to the “burqini”, a swimming costume designed for Muslim women, and instead wear ordinary clothes. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Iranian women have yet to take to the “burqini”, a swimming costume designed for Muslim women, and instead wear ordinary clothes. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • In the surf at Chamkhaleh, Gilan province (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    In the surf at Chamkhaleh, Gilan province (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • A mother (right) with her daughter and son-in-law. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    A mother (right) with her daughter and son-in-law. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Playing in the sand. Babolsar beach, Mazandaran. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Playing in the sand. Babolsar beach, Mazandaran. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
  • Chador-clad women watch the sun go down on Tonokabon beach. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)
    Chador-clad women watch the sun go down on Tonokabon beach. (Photo: Javad Montazeri)

The shores of the Caspian Sea in northern Iran is the land of my childhood, on which I still look back with nostalgia. 

These pictures, taken nearly 30 years after my own seaside memories, show how much things have changed, especially for women who now come to the beach in full hejab or Islamic dress where they would once have worn swimming costumes or bikinis.

When I was six or seven, my family lived in the coastal town of Nowshahr in Mazandaran province. Every Friday, my father would take my brother and me to the seaside so that we could spend the weekend swimming and relaxing on the beach.

Nowadays, men can still swim freely and boys freely whereas women have to be are completely covered up, even when they go into the sea to swim.

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women could wear bikinis without attracting the looks that men now cast on them even though they are fully clothed.

Sometimes my father would point out a yacht moored near the shore belonging to the Shah’s family, with the monarch himself at the helm. At that time I did not grasp the significance of a national leader relaxing with no entourage of bodyguards around him.

Iran has long shorelines in the south as well as on the northern Caspian coast, offering the potential for tourism all year round.

After the revolution, the beaches gradually became neglected and holiday villas, beachside hotels and recreational centres were seized by the new regime.

These days, there are hotels and tourist lodges along the Caspian coast, which play host to families from the capital Tehran and other parts of Iran in the summer.

Iranian officials have on occasion talked of segregating beaches with fibreglass partitions, which would allow women to go into the water in swimwear, but little has come of these plans.

Javad Montazeri is a photojournalist and multimedia expert. He formerly ran the photography desks at several Iranian daily newspapers.