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Iranians looking for a taste of freedom resort to skiing
On the slopes, there's little worry about segregation and dress codes.

By Barbara Demick
The Inquirer
March 29, 1999

SHIMSHEK, Iran -- Squinting into the winter light, Zahra Saveh-Shim sheki clomped out of the lodge in her chunky ski boots. She wore a tasseled woolen cap, a royal-blue parka, and a giddy smile of anticipation.

"Out here, on my skis, I'm as free as the boys," said Saveh-Shimsheki, 19, a member of Iran's women's ski team. Freedom is one reason that skiing has become the passion of affluent Iranians. On the slopes, women wear more or less the same clothing as the men, a rare privilege in a country where female bicyclists, for example, have to wear calf-length coats and head scarves.

Some of the most avid skiers are young, independent-minded women. At the ski resort in Shimshek, a 90-minute drive north from Tehran, they seem to swagger about in their pink lip gloss and bright ski outfits, exhilarated by the freedom.

"By its nature, skiing is a covered sport. It's cold so that ski clothes are concealing, and you don't have the same issues that you do with other sports," said Afsaneh Shimsheki, 40, head of the Iranian Women's Ski Federation.

Families also appreciate the opportunity to ski together. In Iran, most sports are strictly gender segregated -- from swimming at the beach to biking in the park. Although men and women have to ride up on separate chairlifts at Shimshek, once deposited on the slopes, they are free to ski down together.

Ali Ghaedi, the father of two daughters, ages 14 and 17, said he started them skiing a few years ago because it was one of the few outdoor sports that he could do with them. "There are no restrictions on the girls. When they come here, they feel a lot better. It builds their self-confidence," said Ghaedi, a businessman who had driven up for the day from Tehran.

The jaggedly beautiful Alborz Mountains, with a peak of more than 12,000 feet, rise abruptly to the north of the flat plain on which Tehran is built. For city residents, the mountains are a popular getaway from the heat and dust -- and the strictures of life in an Islamic state. For years, the more affluent neighborhoods of Tehran have emptied on weekends, their inhabitants heading to the hills to breathe more freely. Since the 1997 election of reformer Mohammad Khatami as president, Iranians have been more eager than ever to push the rules to have a good time. During a recent weekend day, crisp winter sunshine beating down on the slopes, there was a party atmosphere on the sundeck at Shimshek. Young men and women flirted openly as they sipped from cans of nonalcoholic beer and cups of hot chocolate. "This is one of the friendliest slopes around. There are no baseeji," said Maziar, 24, a student, referring to the religious youth who patrol parks and other public places looking for infractions of the strict Islamic rules.

He and two female friends, glamorously urbane in dark sunglasses as they lolled in canvas deck chairs, said they go to the resort not for the skiing but for the atmosphere.

"I feel like I'm in Europe," Maziar said. "Where else in Iran can you be so relaxed?"

Returning from the slopes, Carine Legarrac, 24, a French flight attendant who works in Dubai for United Emirates Air, praised the European atmosphere -- and the Iranian prices.

"There is nowhere else in the Middle East where you can find skiing of this quality," she said. "I grew up in the Alps, and I would say that this place is quite decent for serious skiers."

Skiing was brought to Shimshek in the 1950s by German engineers working in nearby coal mines. The mines have closed, but the resort, which opened in 1959, has sustained the village ever since.

Even though the resort lost most of its foreign tourists after the Islamic revolution of 1979, day trippers from Tehran keep the business going. During peak season, such as the Iranian New Year, which started March 21, Shimshek gets up to 1,700 skiers a day.

(Shimshek continues to produce some of Iran's best skiers, as demonstrated by the fact that so many professionals have the surname Shimsheki, indicating the town is their ancestral home.)

The resort even has something of an official endorsement from Iran's Islamic authorities. Above a chairlift is a billboard of the spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni with the quote: "I consider sport as a necessity for the health of everyone's mind and body. . . ."

Despite poor snowfall this year, resort manager Aghiel Kia-Shimsheki said skiing was a booming business.

"We have more and more people taking skiing lessons," Kia-Shimsheki said. "The beginner's classes are full. Parents send even the littlest ones on buses from the city to learn to ski."

Among athletic officials, there is keen interest in developing women's skiing as an international competitive sport. Iran's strict dress codes and gender segregation have limited women's participation to shooting, rowing and skiing.

In the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the Iranian team drew worldwide attention when its only female member, shooter Lida Fariman, carried the Iranian flag while dressed in full Islamic attire. She finished, however, 46th among 49 competitors in target shooting; some Iranian athletes grumbled that the restrictive clothing impeded her performance.

Although Iranian women do play such indoor sports as volleyball in shorts and T-shirts, the games are off-limits to men -- which rules out these athletes' participation in international games.

Tahereh Taherian, an official of Iran's Olympic Committee, notes that Iranian women have participated in Asian Game matches in Korea and China and have done better than the Iranian men.

"Skiing, we believe, is one area in which women can compete," Taherian said. "There is really no difference between the way you ski and we ski. It's done in normal clothing. If you see how Iranians love their skiing, it is really very promising."


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form

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