Women lament loss of ladies' beaches

Three ladies-only beaches have closed in Abu Dhabi in recent years, leaving women in the capital without a stretch of coast to call their own.

People enjoy the public beach on Abu Dhabi's Corniche. Many women say they still feel uncomfortable on mixed beaches and are calling for the reinstatement of segregated areas.
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ABU DHABI // Wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and a hijab, Hala Jarabaa sat on a beach towel and soaked up the sun.

She could not swim at the Corniche public beach because there were men there, but she still fondly remembers the days when Abu Dhabi had a ladies-only beach in Ras Al Akhdar.

"When we were children we would go there," said the 24-year-old Palestinian.

That beach closed more than five years ago and the area is now a maze of construction. But many women in Abu Dhabi wish the municipality would open another ladies-only beach - or designate ladies-only days on a secluded section of the coast.

"I would come to every ladies' day," said Mona Mohammed, 26, a Yemeni university student born and raised in Abu Dhabi.

Fadhel Ali Abdulla Al Memari, senior supervisor of activities at Al Bateen beach, said he understood there was a demand for a ladies' beach.

"There are no confirmed plans as of yet to open a designated ladies' section at Al Bateen beach or hold special women's days," Mr Al Memari said. "But it is definitely something we keep in mind. We are open to suggestions from the public."

On Thursday at the Corniche public beach, Ms Mohammed set out a picnic of tea and snacks with two friends, all three dressed in abayas and shaylas.

The former ladies' beach was a haven, Ms Mohammed said.

"Weekly we would go with our friends, family and hang out there," she said. "It had privacy by the sea. No one could see us, no male staff - all ladies. And we could have parties there. But now it is finished."

The family beach on the Corniche - where women, couples or families can pay a small fee for relative privacy - is not a substitute for a ladies-only section, women said.

"Many times I came with my family and I found women in bikinis," said Ms Mohammed, explaining that such attire made her uncomfortable in mixed-gender settings.

"I know they will respect our tradition, but they don't know, maybe."

The former ladies' beach, or Bahr Al Hreem, opened in 1987 and another women's beach opened in Al Raha in the 1990s. The seaside Abu Dhabi Ladies Club also opened in the 1990s. All, however, have since closed.

The Tourism Development and Investment Company announced last year that it planned to build a women-only beach club on Saadiyat Island. Officials said they expected to start the year-long construction project within the next few months.

Jehan Erfan, an Abu Dhabi resident from Egypt, said a new ladies' beach was "a very good idea". "We were just talking about how we have gained weight and are shy to wear our swimsuits," joked Ms Erfan, 40. "We like some privacy, so it would be great to have a ladies' beach or maybe ladies-only days."

Ms Jarabaa said a ladies' beach would allow her to enjoy the water.

"We are free in it," she said. "We can take off our clothes and wear swimming gear."

A ladies' beach would need all-female workers and be out of the way of male eyes. Authorities would also need to find a way to keep men on jet skis from passing nearby, for example, Ms Mohammed said.

However, a few women were less eager for a ladies-only beach.

Anju Johari, 52, from India, said sharing the shore with men did not bother her.

Chris Penuel, 42, from England, said she liked to go to the beach with her husband. "It doesn't affect me one way or another to have men on the beach," she said.

But she added that she understood why other women felt differently.

"I can see why some women would want a ladies-only beach, not just for religious reasons."