All-female park opens in Tehran

Some men are angry at losing one of their favourite spaces in the capital, while women weigh safety concerns against isolation.

Female gardeners working at Tehran's women-only park.

Credit: Newsha Tavakolian for The National
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TEHRAN // Sara Tavangar, 28, and her university friends are dressed in shorts and tank-tops; expected attire for a jog round the park, but an unusual sight in Tehran, where strict Islamic dress codes oblige women to cover their head and body in public. But Ms Tavangar and her friends, medical students at Tehran University, are taking advantage of the capital's first all-women park, where males older than five are forbidden and even the guards and gardeners are women. "We are totally free here to dress as we wish," said Ms Tavangar, who said she jogs about two or three times a week. "In other parks I have to be dressed in trousers, coat and headscarf. All of that makes jogging and exercising quite uncomfortable, especially on hot days," she said. Elsewhere in the park, women have shed their cloaks and headscarves and are scattered about the lawns, sunbathing, walking or exercising. The park sprawls across several hills and boasts trees as well as jogging and cycling tracks. Formerly a family park, it was renamed "Mothers' Paradise Park" and is now surrounded by tall fences covered with canvas or metal sheets to keep away prying eyes. The park was opened on May 13 by Mohammed Baqir Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, and already has caused some controversy. Some women are concerned that it will lead to greater sex segregation in the city, and a group of neighbourhood men are angry that they have lost access to their favourite park. The men held a protest during the inauguration ceremony but were told by Mr Qalibaf that women accounted for half the city's population and that their needs should be meet. The park was chosen because of its location on high ground with no surrounding tall buildings that could allow anyone a glimpse inside. With no men allowed inside the 19-hectare park, women are able to indulge in such activities as archery, art classes or aerobics without being conscious of their veil slipping or how they talk, laugh or behave. The park also offers access to family, marriage and legal counselling. Most women said they feel much safer in the park with its all female staff, including the security guards and gardeners. A handful of men guard the outer perimeter of the park and provide security at night. "There are about 20 of us. We are all students of the police academy. It's nice working here," said one young female security guard who would not give her name. "We rarely have any trouble with the park visitors. Trouble arises only when people bring in cameras or mobile phones to take video. "We have to take their cameras and destroy the film to prevent an invasion of privacy of other women. Video or photos taken in places or in women-only swimming pools sometimes find their way into the wrong hands," she said. "The idea of parks for women and giving them their own space is not a bad idea as long as it is not a prelude to total segregation in the society, for example in universities," said Marzieh Ganji, a 57-year-old retired secondary school teacher, taking a walk in the park. But she warned: "There are men who would want to push women back into their homes or to cut them away from society." In Iran, women and men are segregated in such public places as beaches, pools or sports facilities where women do not wear the hijab. Schools are also segregated, but women study alongside men in most universities. Tehran is not the first city in Iran to open a women-only park. The cities of Shiraz, Tabriz, Qom, Isfahan and Ardabil had them already. In Shiraz, six-metre-tall walls had to be erected around the park to block the view from surrounding buildings. Mr Qalibaf, Tehran's mayor, said the city plans to build three more all-women parks. The 27-hectare Azadegan women's park in south-east Tehran will even have a full-size football pitch. Football is very popular among women in Iran. Iran has a national women's football team, which has twice won second place at the West Asian Football Federation Women's Championship. Players wear the hijab.