They call it the ladies’ beach. The name is demure; the scene, not so much — at least not once they pass the parking lot, the man checking tickets at the front gate and the dim corridor at whose far end blazes a rectangle of bronze sand and sea.
Hijabs are unwound from heads, veils tugged from faces. Jeans and abayas evaporate, divulging string bikinis, tankinis and swim shorts. Under spindly cabanas by azure waves, two women lie chest down on lounge chairs, their bare backs implying bare fronts. All around them, gallons of tanning oil glisten on acres of copper skin.
When a man on a Jet Ski buzzes past, a female lifeguard warns him off with a staccato of whistle blasts.
“Men,” said Nada, a school bus supervisor from Beirut who was treading the Mediterranean just offshore, “are suffocating.”
In Lebanon, a sliver of a country on the Mediterranean coast where summer sticks to your skin like moist Saran wrap, the beach is less a luxury than a utility. It is hard to imagine going without.
Public and pay-by-the-day beaches line the coast from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north, and every other billboard on the highways out of Beirut seems to display a bikini model promoting a tanning aid. (SPF, evidently, is not in style.)
But many observant Muslim women consider it “haram” — forbidden — to expose their bodies in front of men who are not their husbands or, in some cases, close relatives. Other women may cover themselves in deference to conservative families and communities.
For them, a mixed-gender beach is to be avoided; those who go with their families roast in the sun fully clothed in hijabs and long-sleeved shirts and pants or abayas, the full-length caftans popular among devout Lebanese Muslim women.
Hence the emergence of ladies’ beaches like this one, the Bellevue Beach Club in the seaside town of Jiyeh — a salt-tinged hiatus from the male gaze for $18 (around Rs 1300) a day, just 20 minutes down a trash-perfumed highway from Beirut.
It is a dedicated patch of sand for conservative women amid the cultural mélange of Lebanon, which, with its 18 recognized religious sects and vigorous all-night party scene, tends to be more socially liberal than other Arab countries.
At the Bellevue, there seemed to be as many different degrees of scanty cladding as there were women. For some women, religious scruples argued for more coverage. For others, style considerations, and the heat, argued for less. Each woman had made her own peace with the proportions.
“Here, I’m free to be me,” said Rabab Amhaz, 35, a housewife from the inland Bekaa Valley. She gestured to her tankini, bright with a teal floral pattern, and shimmied in the water.
Seeking a second opinion on her beach visit, she had consulted her brother, a Hezbollah fighter. He had not only given her his blessing but shown her a YouTube video of a Muslim cleric explaining that swimwear was acceptable among women, so long as the women covered their lower bodies.
Nada, who began wearing the veil when she married at age 14, dismissed this assessment: You could find a cleric to say anything you wanted, she said.
Following her own strong conviction that all the skin on display around her was forbidden — who knew who might be watching from one of the boats that periodically splashed by, or from behind the walls of the resort? — she had looked at herself in the mirror that morning and changed into a more modest bottom. She also declined to reveal her last name to a reporter, preferring to avoid the prospect of disapproval at home.
But a swimsuit was a swimsuit — in this case, a black-and-white patterned swim tank with black shorts.
“When you see me on Facebook, I look completely different,” she said, her hair loose and ropy in the water. “You wouldn’t recognize me.”
After next year, when she planned to make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim who can afford it is supposed to undertake at least once, she said she would avoid even the ladies’ beach; she, like many women who have completed the hajj, would adopt more modest attire.
And she frowned on the women who had brought their young sons, who are allowed up to age 8 on the beach. She did not want her sons or grandsons to get used to seeing women’s bodies.
But still. “I love to swim,” she said, smiling and shrugging, “so I have no other choice.”
Nada and Amhaz agreed on one point: absolutely no beach selfies, not even to share with their husbands.
“No, no!” they exclaimed, high-fiving.
“My husband doesn’t need pictures,” Amhaz said. “He sees everything anyway.”
Cameras are banned, the better to protect the beachgoers’ modesty and privacy, though cellphones are not. But visits to several other Lebanese resorts, undertaken purely for journalistic purposes, suggested few other differences between women-only beaches and mixed ones beyond the obvious.
No matter the setting, gossip and hookah pipes scent the air. Snacks, water and shade are at a premium. People-watching is frequently rewarding.
Several ladies’ beaches fringe the coastline south of Beirut, their names redolent of sandy glamour around the world (the Laguna; the Bondi). The Bellevue Beach Club began offering women-only days in the mid-1990s after veiled women began asking for privacy.
Business was good — better than on mixed days, even. It soon went all women, all the time.
A man collects tickets, but no other males are allowed. Women staff the restrooms and the pool. The staff includes the Australian and Filipino wives of the brothers who run the Bellevue, who go to mixed beaches together.
There is a female DJ for the thatch-roofed poolside cabana where beachgoers undulate, hips exuberantly swaying, to Egyptian singer Sherine Abdel Wahab and Lebanese singer Maya Yazbek.
Lebanon, where people from different sects share offices, neighborhoods and businesses, and crop tops can outnumber hijabs in some Beirut neighborhoods, might seem like a natural inventor of the ladies’ beach. But women-only hours at the pool or the beach are common in other parts of the Middle East, too, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, where dress codes for local women are more uniformly conservative.
At the Bellevue, there were no religious strictures on swim attire but each woman’s own.
Nada’s 21-year-old daughter wears modest gym clothing when she goes to mixed beaches with her husband; at the Bellevue, she wore a bikini top with a short swim skirt. She had brought a Syrian friend who, taken aback at the way the other beachgoers dressed, kept a tank top on.
Then there was Rana Ghalayini, a nurse from Beirut who had first put on the veil when she was 12, only to remove it because her family thought she was too young. When she married at 23, she and her husband agreed that she should be veiled. But she had resolved to keep her three young daughters unveiled until they, too, were 23.
“Religion is broad,” she said. “It’s a personal choice.”
Her reasons for wearing a one-piece swimsuit to the Bellevue were more earthly.
“If I were skinny,” she said, “I’d wear a bikini.”