Notes on Swim Politics in Iran

A fascinating social history of swimming pools in northern United States that was published in 2007 deserves attention from Iran researchers.  Contested Waters showed how, between the World Wars, middle class expansion/empowerment in general and eroticization/gender de-segregation at public pools popularized swim facilities that excluded African Americans.  Earlier in the century, women, not Blacks, had been kept out.  This year, two sets of encounters convinced me that in Iran, too, contested access to swim space can help us understand how gender and social privilege (or lack thereof) interact.

Simply stated, anecdotal evidence suggests that in swimming, gender-based segregation has expanded while class-based exclusion has shrunk in the Islamic Republic since the early 1980s.  More precisely, a government-backed shift away from proprietary or co-ed beaches and swimming pools has coincided with, and even aided, an erosion of white-collar privilege in water recreation for men and women.

Although the present essay does no cover competitive swimming, it is helpful to note that, for religious reasons, Iran fields no women’s swim team outside its borders.  The policy is remarkable because the Iranian government invests heavily in sports of practically every kind, including women’s water sports, for international matches.  Women’s swimming is an exception because world swim competition rules are incompatible with the Islamic Republic’s insistence on full body cover for women wherever unrelated men are present.

Women’s swim teams have multiplied with the spread of state-funded sports complexes in urban environments, where they can keep men away long enough regularly to practice in Western-style swimsuits.  At Tehran University’s college of agriculture, women have been admitted to the pool daily during designated hours since it was enclosed in 2006.  Previously, the facility had stayed shut since the Revolution of 1979 to prevent staff and students from seeing partially unclothed bodies of swimmers of opposite sex.

By contrast, the formerly co-ed pool at my old college dormitory complex in Shiraz has not seen water in three decades, because it is not indoors.  Counter-intuitively, this and similar restrictions have prompted millions more Iranians to allow their daughters and sisters to move far away for higher education.  At 67% percent today, the proportion of females in Iran’s college population is higher than ever.  I will return to dynamics of Iranian pools shortly.

Contested Beach Exclusion Zones

The first of my two study opportunity examples is the Caspian Sea coast in Iran’s vacation-paradise north.  Here, as in popular beaches in Iran’s far south, women can enter public waters in the presence of unrelated men, even if the men are clothed with nothing more than bathing suits.  But to avoid unwanted attention, women swimmers and bathers must be accompanied by a friend or relative and must wear full cover that hides their curves from the neck down.  Families whose women are eager to swim with less cover — typically in higher income brackets — must either drive to remote seaside stretches or have access to exclusive proprietary beaches for privacy.  Those who can afford the cost prefer to vacation in Turkey and farther West, where women enjoy the same swim rights at beaches as men.

Proprietary beaches were common on the Caspian seashore until recently, as beach estates were allowed to extend their fences all the way to the sea and bar unauthorized beachgoers.  (The best known of these, a former royal palace located in Ramsar, was featured cinematically in the opening scene of The House of Sand and Fog.)  Stringed together, the gated estates, including private villas and upmarket motels, created miles-long exclusion zones.  Many of the larger, beautifully landscaped properties are government-owned facilities that make their villas, beaches, and dining and recreation privileges available to employees and pensioners of one agency (or state industry) or another.  For practical reasons, including cost considerations, their clientele is almost exclusively white collar.

Thus the most conveniently located beaches were, until 2007, practically closed to “uneducated masses,” including local folks.  Depending on their own political and religious loyalties, the excluder few described the excluded commoners either as backward Islamic purists opposed to women’s recreation or as ignorant sexual predators who would rarely let their own womenfolk get in water in public.  The absence of men (except as cleaning crew) on the proprietary beaches afforded privileged women vacationers a chance to relax and enter the water with less than full cover, while male relatives and colleagues could enjoy the water on the opposite side of a token privacy partition.

Before the mass uprising that toppled Iran’s US-backed monarchy, the Caspian Sea coast had far fewer controlled-access stretches.  Women could during that period wear Western-style bathing suits and swim more or less freely at public beaches.  Ever since Reza Shah ordered women forcibly unveiled in public in the 1930s, traditionalists who would oppose unregulated access to water recreation for women were in retreat.  But soon after the change of government in 1979, mandatory veiling returned everywhere and the US-backed “modern” middle class — led by technocrats — lost so much status that it resorted, in self preservation, to erecting physical and social barriers wherever possible.  The Islamic authorities, for their part, selectively challenge white-collar elitism.

The beach exclusion zones were targeted for elimination when President Ahmadinejad visited the coast in 2006 during one of his popular campaign-style excursions in the provinces.  Local supporters pleaded with him to make the beaches inclusive again.  On his orders, in most locations nearly all beach fences have been removed to establish a 200 foot-wide open zone for public enjoyment.  The program is moving forward in remaining coastal stretches.  Simultaneously, the government has partitioned small, no-cameras-allowed sections at a few popular beaches for exclusive use by women.

Judging by complaints from white-collar vacationers, Caspian Sea beaches are now considerably less segregated by class.  But for privacy reasons, fewer women swim.  Those who do spend less time in water than they did before or limit themselves to inconvenient times and locations.  The government feels little pressure about this, because lower middle and working class women, who, together with their families, constitute Ahmadinejad’s political base nationwide, are far less interested in bathing or swimming where unrelated men are present than modern middle class women are.  This is especially true among the generation raised before the Revolution.  On the other hand, the popularity of indoor public pools, which admit women during designated “sisters only” hours, is at an all-time high across the nation.

Politically Correct Swimming Pools

There are dozens more indoor public swimming pools in Iran’s urban centers now than when I grew up there before the Islamic Revolution.  They are located on university campuses, in state-owned sports complexes, and, less frequently, in exclusive hotels and planned residential communities.  The widespread availability of gender-segregated indoor public pools has come with the demise of co-ed, single-family outdoor swimming pools built before the Revolution in private homes, primarily in affluent northern Tehran.

Last May and June, as campaigning for presidential elections gathered momentum, I stayed with an extended family in the Abbasabad section of the capital who parked their cars where their front yard swimming pool stood before.  Long ago, it had provided relief from the searing heat every summer, aided by a customary privacy fence.  Revolutionary authorities discouraged swimming there in 1981, after a new third-floor neighbor next door complained that the “erotic” sight of swimmers interfered with her youngsters’ moral development.  At the time of my visit, my hosts had access only to uninviting, gender-segregated indoor swimming at the Venus Apartment Hotel on their street, at a steep membership price.  Politically, they were so opposed to Ahmadinejad’s candidacy for re-election that they told an aunt never to call again when they realized she supported the populist president.

I had enjoyed co-ed summer swimming in Abbassabad as a high school student forty some years earlier, at the posh US State Department-funded Iran America Institute.  I had been the youngest among dozens of guests invited for two weeks of Cold War-inspired cultural programs.  Prime minister Hassan Ali Mansur had been assassinated only months earlier by a militant Islamist for granting resident US military personnel immunity from possible prosecution.  A middle-aged cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini was gaining popularity for opposing the new law.  President Johnson had just ordered the bombing of North Vietnam with diplomatic support from Iran.  When I returned to Abbasabad in 2009, the Iran America Institute had vanished, along with most single-family swimming pools.

The confrontation that deprived my hosts of their own pool — one of dozens throughout northern Tehran then — came during a period when revolutionary Iran was gripped by fear of US intervention, a surprise Iraqi military invasion, and a terrorist attack that decimated the country’s top new Islamic leadership.  The new government was ever more dependent on Iran’s underprivileged majority to survive, a majority that was hostile to privileges like co-ed single-family pools.  Global powers East and West and neighboring countries abandoned Iran in favor of Iraq, and Iran’s relatively secular middle class families fled abroad or otherwise refused to support the national defense effort.  Iran’s regular armed forces were demoralized and not trusted, making the government desperate for volunteer fighters from lower middle and working class backgrounds, the bastion of Islamic piety and gender segregation in Iran.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose populist re-election campaign years later would enrage disgruntled former single-family pool owners, made his start as one such volunteer.

Blue-collar and rural-poor mobilization played a monumental role in ousting the Shah in 1979 and halting the US-backed Iraqi offensive in the years that followed.  Single-family swimming pools, on the other hand, were associated in the public’s mind with the relatively secular, prosperous class that previously supported the monarchy and “decadence.”  Tehran’s southern and eastern half — the densely populated lower middle and working class neighborhoods that were to overwhelmingly vote for Ahmadinejad in 2009 — included hardly a single private pool intended for swimming.  Like homes in Iran’s equally conservative provinces, underprivileged Tehranis had only small reservoirs in their yards that were typically too small to accommodate swimmers.  Years earlier, I had earned savage scorn from a swimming pool-owning family for daring to take their US American guest, a summer exchange student, on a tour of “embarrassing” neighborhoods in southern Tehran.

The political subtext that led to the de facto banning of the co-ed pools included the ousted monarchy’s half-century of open hostility toward the religious establishment.  The animosity dated back to the 1930s, when Reza Shah forced most women to stay home for fear of forced unveiling by police.  So in 1979 and thereafter, vengeful Islamic Republic authorities were in no mood to protect north Tehran’s single-family pools from the government’s puritan allies, except in cases where certain new officials allegedly confiscated fancy estates for their own use.

Gender-based segregation is also interwoven tightly with anti-elitist ideology at the state level, as it is justified with reference to the 200,000-plus martyrs of the Revolution and the defense against (Iraqi) “infidels,” fallen heroes who came largely from low-income families.  The social conservative wing of the established order fully expects women to repay their moral debt to the perished “defenders of Islam” by obeying Islamic modesty rules at beaches, swimming pools, and elsewhere.  It also insists that decadent privileges like controlled-access beaches and single-family swimming pools violate the spirit of sacrifice that helped Islam overcome social dispossession and foreign domination in Iran.  It should not surprise us, therefore, that a decline in class-based swim opportunities has accompanied the rise of swim segregation by gender in Iran.

Rostam Pourzal is a Washington, DC-based political analyst specializing in the politics of human rights.

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