TEHRAN (AFP) — Nasrin and Kimia cast aside their Islamic headscarves and quickly unbutton their coats as soon as they pass a gate watched by male guards -- the entrance to Tehran's first women-only park.The mother and daughter lay out their picnic on the lawn and lie in the hot spring sun as a group of other women jog past them in spaghetti-strapped vests and lycra shorts.An unusual sight indeed in Iran, where all women are obliged to cover their hair and body contours in public to obey the country's strict Islamic dress code.But last month the Tehran municipality opened the " Mothers' Paradise" park in the upmarket north of the city to create a male-free zone every day of the week except Friday.Built on hills and filled with lush evergreens, it was deemed an ideal spot for any park. It is now surrounded by iron sheets up to four metres (13 feet) high to keep out prying eyes."It is a good place to take in fresh air and finally dress as you want," said 39-year-old Nasrin who lives nearby and comes to the park almost every day. "In an Islamic country this is as good as it gets."In Islamic societies, women wear headscarves with the avowed aim of preventing men from being sexually aroused by seeing their hair and curves in public and thus protecting their virtue.But even in Iran, where the hijab is obligatory in public, the Islamic dress rules do not apply for women in places where it is forbidden for men to enter."Taking into account the religious beliefs in our society, we have to wisely use all our capacities to care for the wellbeing of women," said Tehran's conservative mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf last month while inaugurating the park.The 20-hectare (50-acre) park offers aerobics classes in the open air (something of a craze for both sexes in Iran), a cycling track, a sports hall for team games and even archery courses.Nahid Foadi, 50, has arrived with friends swinging badminton rackets and gym bags."We need vitamin D and all these years our health has been neglected. They have to build more such parks everywhere," she said.Some women said they felt safer in the park, which is run by an all-women staff of cleaners, gardeners and security guards, complaining about harassment and drug dealers in other parks.The park is looked after by male staff outside its confines and after 8:00 pm, which is the closing time, regarded as too early by many women."It's an insult to close so early when many just want to enjoy a walk and exercise after work," said Farideh Nabavi, a 45-year-old businesswoman, who has nevertheless urged all her friends by text message to discover the park.Unlike other women-only venues, such as swimming pools, sports clubs and concert halls, visitors are not required to hand in cell phones and cameras.Iran's police have been battling the distribution of compromising footage of women shot secretly in such places on cell phones and posted on the Internet or sold on video CDs throughout Iran."We think it is better to trust women and that they would avoid taking pictures for their own good," said a security guard who asked not to be named.But she added that they were careful to prevent anyone violating the unwritten rule.Plans to build women's parks in the capital go back almost a decade to Tehran's first city council, which was run by reformists, and they have been established in several other cities such as Isfahan, Shiraz and Mashhad.A rival and critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Qalibaf succeeded him as Tehran mayor after the 2005 presidential elections and is seen as a more pragmatic figure. The hostility between the pair is an open secret in Iran.Since his appointment, the former police chief has wasted little time in launching long-overdue projects including the restoration of Tehran's landmark Azadi cinema, burned down 15 years ago, into a chic steel and glass multiplex."I think Qalibaf decided to go ahead with the park to endear himself to women and get votes" ahead of 2009 presidential elections, Nasrin said. The mayor plans least three other women's parks in the capital within a few months.Despite its instant popularity, the park has met with some disapproval, with critics arguing that segregation would not be the right answer to social problems including harassment in public places."Men need to be educated to act like responsible citizens and respect women," said Sogol Zand, a post-graduate student on gender studies.The 38-year-old single woman also objected to the park's name -- Mothers' Paradise -- which "could mean you have no identity as a woman except as a mother."Critics are also concerned about further male-female segregation in the Islamic republic, which frowns on the mingling of unrelated men and women.Women ride in the back of public buses in Iran. University canteens, corridors and some classes are also segregated.The strict rules however do not stop young men and women from hanging out in coffeeshops and restaurants, or strolling and holding hands in parks."There are 1,500 parks in Tehran and hundreds of gyms only for men. It is an undeniable necessity to create a few parks for women who form 50 percent of the population," Qalibaf said.