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Too Hot For The Beaches: Turkmenistan Bans Imports Of Bikinis

On the shores of the Caspian: Bikinis and shorts are the latest in a series of things the Turkmen leader apparently doesn't approve of.
On the shores of the Caspian: Bikinis and shorts are the latest in a series of things the Turkmen leader apparently doesn't approve of.

Don't blame the sunbathers in Turkmenistan if their bikinis seem out of style at the country's forlorn Caspian Sea beach resorts this summer.

The Turkmen government has banned the import of new bikinis and other traditional swimwear, forcing swimmers and other beachgoers to use their old suits or come up with their own fashions.

Owners of swimwear shops say customs officials have also in recent months halted the import of any swimsuits, as well as short pants for both men and women.

"As the swimming season approaches, demand for these products is growing," one seller told RFE/RL. "But the customs officers do not explain the reason for this ban."

At a new bazaar in Ashgabat -- the glittering, white-marbled capital of Turkmenistan -- shopkeepers that still have swimwear and shorts for sale say they are only able to offer what's left from their old inventory.

Once those are gone, it's unclear what people without a bathing suit will wear in the arid Central Asia nation -- and for those who like wearing shorts in a country where summer temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius.

It’s also unclear whether old bikinis will also fall afoul of government fashion norms.

New bikinis and shorts are just the latest in a long line of goods that the Turkmen government has decided aren’t acceptable for its people.

Ruled tightly since 2007 by authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who has dubbed himself "The Protector," Turkmenistan has in recent months imposed bans on such things as black-painted cars (the president thinks white cars bring "good fortune"). Also prohibited: fingernail polish, hair dye, and gold jewelry for all state workers, The Chronicle of Turkmenistan newspaper reported last month.

Like those previous bans, no government statement has been issued about the prohibition on the import of bikinis and shorts.

One customs official told RFE/RL that the ban is connected with the "the moral norms of the Turkmen people," and alluded to officials not wanting Turkmen women to wear revealing swimsuits. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, since he was not authorized to speak to the media.

With no official word about the ban, most people are finding out about it the hard way, as happened earlier this year when Ashgabat police began impounding black vehicles parked around the capital, even pulling over the drivers of such dark cars and issuing stiff fines.

The ban on nail polish and hair dyes for government employees was only the start, as shops that sold such items reported they were no longer allowed by customs officials to import the products. The items are slowly vanishing from store shelves.

Many Turkmen find the hair-dye ban to be particularly ironic, since Berdymukhammedov himself was known to have random streaks of gray upon his head early in his rule, though in recent years he has appeared in public with a head of sheer black hair, with some referring to him as a "burning brunette."

Berdymukhammedov: Now you see the gray, now you don't.
Berdymukhammedov: Now you see the gray, now you don't.

Turkmenistan is a conservative society whose cultural and fashion norms are also influenced by Islam, the dominant religion. Still, traditional swimwear of the sort found in Western countries -- for both men and women -- isn’t an uncommon sight on the country’s Caspian Sea beaches.

Many of the clothing and fashion bans appear to have focused on women, when in 2013 female state workers and students were issued rules that instructed them to wear scarlet-red dresses and state-approved national scarves.

Natural-gas rich Turkmenistan and its sparse population of some 5 million people should be relatively well off. But the government's management of the economy has led to problems such as high unemployment, rampant inflation, and severe shortages of staples, including bread. That’s forced Turkmen to smuggle flour in from bordering countries.

With an average monthly salary of about 1,200 manats (about $300), some people have been forced to seek work in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and other Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

A group of Turkmen staged an impromptu protest on April 3 after they were prevented, without explanation, from boarding a plane to Istanbul amid a government campaign to keep people from leaving the country:

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service