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 asway, to the Egyptian singer Sherine Abdel Wahab and the 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 regarding 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 somewhat more earthly.
“If I were skinny,” she said, “I’d wear a bikini.”