The question of what it’s like to travel to Iran as a woman is something that I’ve been asked many times. Every time I’ve attempted to write this article I have struggled to find the words that express what Iran is truly like for a female tourist. In part, my hesitation stems from the fact I have spoken to other people about Iran and often they struggle to believe what I tell them. They say things like “you’re so brave, but I couldn’t do it”. The truth is the preconceived notions that many of us in the Western world have about Iran are so far from reality.
When Paul first brought up the idea of a trip to Iran I wasn’t exactly keen on the idea. Who in there right mind would want to go to such an unsafe, politically unstable place? We could be killed! As these thoughts continued to whirl around my head, I decided the best approach was to ignore the idea and hope that Paul wouldn’t bring it up again. This really didn’t work. Eventually we decided that yes, we would visit Iran and looking back at it now, my concerns seemed uninformed however they are the same concerns that I have been asked about since returning.
Below is a list of some of these concerns, along with my post Iran rebuttal.
Iran Isn’t Safe
Throughout the entire time we were in Iran I never felt unsafe. I have walked through streets in Australia and the US and felt more unsafe than I did in Iran as the streets are frequently devoid of people late at night. Whilst in Iran there always seemed to be people around. Late in the evenings even during weekdays you would see families out together picnicking and enjoying the cool nights. Even money changers perform their business with open suitcases on the sidewalk.
Iranians Hate Westerners
This is so far from the truth. Coming from Mediterranean backgrounds, Paul and I blended in a lot more than our more Anglo-Saxon looking travelling companions so we didn’t experience this phenomenon to the same degree as them. It became, however, a great tool for us to observe what was happening to our friends. Here’s what I mean. Quite often we would have strangers approach and strike up a conversation on the street. “Welcome to Iran” “What brings you here?” “How are you finding it?” “Is Iran what you thought it would be like?” “I am so honoured and pleased that you’ve chosen to visit Iran” are just a few of the common things we heard from locals.
The Iranian people are some of the most friendly, hospitable people you will meet. They love to chat with tourists and are genuinely happy that visitors to their country have taken the step of trying to discover the real Iran beyond what the mainstream Western media portrays. There’s also no shortage of Western brands – knockoffs and grey market imports of course due to sanctions (although this should change now that sanctions have been lifted). We saw guys wearing Nike shoes and wearing NFL and NBA jerseys for example.
You’ll Be The Victim of a Terror Attack
Yes there are acts of terror that occur in the Middle East, but terror attacks have also occurred in New York, London and Paris just to name a few other popular tourist destinations. These things can happen anywhere in the world, but think back to how many terror attacks you’ve heard about that have actually occurred in Iran. That’s right, there haven’t been any.
How Do We Get Out If Something Goes Wrong?
In the event something went wrong, our guide was always there to translate and look after our well being. If our guide wasn’t around and we were in trouble a lot of the younger generation of Iranians speak English. It would be enough to get you back to your hotel or an embassy if need be. I would always recommend carrying a card for your hotel with the address in Persian. Basically, exactly the same as in any other foreign non-English speaking country.
Iran Is An Oppressive Place, Especially For Women
There is most definitely a degree of female oppression in Iran, which is evident by the way you see all woman walk down the street. A headscarf (rousari) covering a woman’s hair and long loose clothing is required. This type of clothing is in itself not oppressive of course, rather the oppression stems from the fact that women have no choice as to whether or not they cover up by law.
Interestingly though, especially in the larger cities, we noticed women pushing the limits as to what is acceptable. As we started talking to more and more young, educated Iranians the same comment came up time and time again – that things are changing and that the strict dress requirement are outdated and should not be enforced. Iranian women are highly educated and strong willed and are pushing the boundaries with the way they dress and act.
Headscarves don’t cover the entirety of hair in larger cities, instead woman are pushing the boundaries with only a small portion of their hair covered. We also noticed this being pushed even further in Tehran where we saw woman wearing transparent mesh head scarfs. These in reality barely constituted headscarves in my opinion. Bright coloured scarfs and tighter garments have also crept into every day wardrobes, providing women with further options to express their individuality.
Looking back on it now that we have returned, the headscarf didn’t bother me as much as I thought from a equality stand point, more than anything it frustrated me as it was a pain to keep it on. It had a tendency to slide down constantly. It took me a week to work out if you wear a large hair clip with velvet on it, it stops the scarf falling off.
One peculiar thing we noticed was that the mannequins in store windows were dressed in clothes you’d expect to see in a Western shop such as mini skirts and short dresses. I asked one of our Iranian friends why they would sell clothes that clearly could not be worn in public. She informed us that what you see in public and in private are two very different things. As soon as people are inside the conservative clothes come off and these Western outfits are underneath. I asked what she thought had driven this change. She said that she believed a lot of this stemmed from education.
Our friend and many of her friends went to university overseas and had been exposed to Western culture. Additionally, the younger generation are aware of how to get around the bans on social media and certain Internet content via the use of VPNs. This exposure is changing views on many traditional ideals. One of the most positive pieces of information I found was that women comprise more than half of all university graduates in Iran.
Woman have rights to most things – they can drive a car, play sport, they can have an opinion. However there are still limitations on what women can do. For example women can’t watch sports at an arena and family law still favours the man in the event something happens in a marriage. Things are changing which is great, but for the everyday Iranian women there is still much work to be done. As a traveler these things will not really affect you however as a woman in that society it is a different story depending upon who you marry. The same can be said for many Western relationships to some degree.
Women Must Be Subversive To Men
This notion was very much misinformed. Women and men walked next to each rather than woman trailing behind. There was even physical contact between married couples in public which was must unexpected. E.g. holding hands or a brush on the arm. Full on PDA is still considered unacceptable behavior.
The Dress Code Means Women Struggle In The Heat
I have to admit I struggled. The heat at times was unbearable which was worsened by the long clothes and headscarf we were required to wear. The only real advice I can give is make sure you wear cotton or linen clothing as at least they will breathe in the heat. As foreigners you have to abide by the local dress code whether you like it or not – there’s no leeway here, apart from looking at what the local are doing to see where the limits are on certain things.
Women Require A Chaperone At All Times
This is not the case at all. You would see young woman shopping by themselves or with groups of friends. They were not required to have a man by their sides at all times.
Are We Being Selfish By Visiting? Our Poor Parents Are Freaking Out!
Our parents freaked out no matter how many times we tried to convince them we would be safe. There are dangerous areas that are not recommended such as near the Iran/Iraq border. As long as there is continued hostility between both nations border locations will remain volatile and unsafe but the fact of the matter is that any of the places you’ll want to visit in Iran as a tourist are very far away from any of these areas.
Iran is a wonderful country and hopefully this article has helped allay some of your concerns. I highly recommend adding Iran to your “must see” travel list and if you have any questions you’d like to ask, feel free to do so in the comments section below. I’ll do my best to answer them!