Have you heard of the famous topless beach on Kish Island, located in the Persian Gulf, south of Iran? No? Neither had I, Gentle Reader, until I visited it a few days ago, and found myself once more staggered by the teeming contradictions and absurdities of life in I.R.I.
Picture this: a line of women, dressed in colourful scarves and wraps, standing in the near-tropical heat before a low building by the sea. They enter slowly, and once inside, they are subjected to airport-like security searches: body searches, bags inside-out, metal detectors- the whole kaboodle. “What on earth are they looking for?” muttered my companion irritably as a female guard turned her bag out, scattering sunscreen and goggles all over. “Alcohol, I suppose. Last time I was here they were screaming at some women for smuggling drinks in.”
We step outside the building from another entrance, out into an enclosed beach. The scene changes dramatically: hundreds, literally hundreds of women decorated in the latest beachwear, crowded together, splashing about in the Persian Gulf, rubbing bronzing oil, suntanning, showering. At least half the women are half-naked, which means I have never seen so many topless women in my life. The scene is paradise for straight men and lesbians. But there are no lesbians in the I.R.I. So the women are free to ogle each other, displaying their breasts, digging their hands deep inside their bikini bottoms and wiggling around as they shower under the wide rows of outdoor showers, rolling over on the soft white glowing sands. The women stare at each other openly and critically, with no sign of embarrassment or inhibitions. Young, old, fat, thin. A thin film of bronzing oil floats on the greeny-yellow surface of the Gulf. The waves are tiny, the fish are plentiful.
Of course, you don’t need psychological training to see that in a society where women’s clothing is scrutinized and politicized and legalized and commented on every single moment, in an artificially-created environment where they are allowed to be in the public and yet dress freely, they run around half-naked. Still, it is visually shocking: the difference between the two doors of the sea-side building, almost as extreme as the difference between the two ends of the rabbit-hole, the two sides of the mirror, the inside and outside of the wardrobe.