I spent over a month in Iran between December 2012 and January 2013. I’ve been asked many times now for tips about travelling around solo in Iran, especially as a girl. I have also been invited to talk about my experience on Madi’s beautiful blog, dreamofiran.com, so it feels about time to publish this article. My general advice would be:
“Go to Iran! It’s an amazing country!”
But now if you want to know in more detail what it was like for me to roam around Iran as a female solo traveller, read what follows. Everything I write is derived from my own experience and should only be regarded as such. Be careful when travelling, but be open!
My itinerary and mode of travel
To give you an idea of where I travelled in Iran: I’ve been to Tabriz, Teheran, Qom, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd, Kerman, Bander-Abbas, Qeshm, Shiraz, Isfahan again and Teheran again before leaving for India. I’ve stayed with locals all the time except for one night in Yazd. I’ve spent my time alone, with locals or with other travellers. To travel around, I’ve taken the bus alone from one city to the other. I’ve taken taxis and local transportation. I’ve also hitch-hiked for two days on Qeshm Island with another girl.
What I knew about Iran before getting there
Not much. When I travel, I try to arrive as neutral as one can be to a new country, with as little prejudice or pre-conceived ideas as possible. This means that I never carry a guide-book and that I do very little research other than how to get there. I do listen to what other travellers have to say though, and I had heard only very positive feedback about Iran, mostly very general and enthusiastic comments such as “just go there they are incredibly hospitable, it’s amazing”.
As far as the dress-code was concerned, I knew that women have to wear a head-scarf in public spaces. And after a fellow female traveller in Georgia gave me a long Indian kurta, I learned that you’re also supposed to cover your behind.
How it was
The headscarf is just a matter of habit. After five weeks wearing it, I actually felt naked without it and kept wearing it for the first few days in India (the fact that Indians are so good at staring didn’t help me let go of it).
I did forget to wear it once. My host was expecting new guests (travellers like me) but the intercom wasn’t working. The guests called us on the mobile and I ran downstairs to open the front door of the building. Once in the lift, I realised that I had forgotten the headscarf and felt a bit weird, but what were the chances of my meeting anyone in the next two minutes? They were pretty good actually. As we were going up, the lift stopped at the next floor and a male neighbour got in with us. He cast me a glance and gestured right away “Where is your headscarf?”. He didn’t look particularly happy about my not wearing it, or maybe slightly worried, but that was it. The next floor was ours and within 30 seconds we were back in the private space of the flat, where you can wear or not wear whatever you want. The contrast between what Iranians, and especially Iranian women wear at home and in public is quite striking, by the way.
Apparently, some older travel guides explain that your headscarf should be very tight around your head and would a lock of hair be visible, an old Iranian woman will come to you and hide it under your scarf. This is not true at all, not anymore at least, if it ever was.
The only place where something like that happened was in Qom. But Qom is a very peculiar city, the most conservative city in Iran. Women in Qom are not just wearing a hijab (the regular shiite headscarf) but a whole chador, a big piece of dark fabric they wrap themselves into. It’s not a burqa, since you can see their whole face, but it covers everything else. So in Qom, I was an alien with my Western clothes and my little hijab and my host tried once or twice to adjust my scarf for me. However my hair was not very compliant, so she gave up soon enough and didn’t seem worried about it. Her own hair was showing a bit as well anyway, she was only because zealous. We got stopped in the bazaar by a policeman who wanted us to confirm that I was a foreigner visiting. We said yes, I am a foreigner then we could go. But again, if this is the representation you have of the situation in the whole of Iran, you’re very, very, very much wrong. This is, as far as I know, the situation in one city in Iran only, Qom, which has been nicknamed “the Vatican of Iran”. Every single Iranian I’ve met afterwards asked with rolling eyes “But why the heck would you decide to go to Qom? There are only extremists there!”.
On the other end of the scale would be the capital city. In Teheran, the headscarf seemed to be comprehended and used by many as a sort of compulsory fashion item. It pretty much hangs very loosely from a sophisticated pony tail, so that you can often see half of the girl’s hair. In Teheran metro system, there is a compartment reserved for women. If you’re a girl, you should definitely use it, as it transforms quickly into an unofficial market and it’s quite amazing to witness the business that’s going on! There is also a park reserved for women in Teheran. It has high green fences around it to keep men from looking in. Women are allowed to go around bare-headed in that park. Some of them do, but not all of them. Older women often keep it on anyways (but are a lot more relaxed).
Actually, many liberal women tend to try to remove their scarf whenever possible – which is not very often. I witnessed or experienced it twice. The first time we were in the desert near Kerman, and as soon as we were really alone and away from the road, some women in the group happily took their scarf off. One of them, more conservative and whose husband was present, kept it on though, if I remember correctly. The second time, we were on a little Island, Qeshm, quite far away on the beach towards the sea, and below us – we were on a little cliff – was a group of young people. They thought no one could see them and the girls were temporarily bare-headed. So whenever it’s not risky, some of them try to do it.
I’d say there are two, maybe three big types of men in Iran. There are the ones you very certainly do NOT want to meet anywhere alone at night in a dark alley, or anywhere at all. I strongly recommend to avoid this type of men, to avoid even looking back at them, in Iran or elsewhere. I just ignored them. Luckily, I’m quite good at that, but maybe it’s just me. My friend Küç for example felt a lot more conscious there and had a hard time. The rest of the masculine lot is not problematic at all, actually very respectful and nice. Actually, a lot of Iranian men appeared to me like insanely romantic. In comparison, the most trained Italian looks like a pale amateur. If you’re wondering what I mean, just know that TWO (love) songs in Iran were written for me in Iran. Not just the odd one, no, TWO! Out of the twenty-something countries I’ve been to, this is the only place where this ever happened. Well, that should give you an idea .
The good stuff
Without going to the song-level, I had quite a few nice experiences. For example, while visiting a palace in Kashan, I somehow started talking to two men who started to really take interest in me… when they found out that I was a native French-speaker! One of them had a master’s degree in French, but I was only the second French-speaker he had the opportunity to talk to in his whole life. I spent some time with them that day, they invited me to the restaurant and we went to visit another site. Then we met again later in Esfahan where we had a picnic on a popular mountain. So I spent quite some time with them and it was great because the whole time, I really felt like there was absolutely no ambiguity, they were only really happy to be able to practice their French and learn about my country and culture first-hand. I never felt threatened in any way. Their interested was linguistic and cultural and had nothing to do with my being a women. That’s how it felt, anyway.
A similar story happened with a guy I first met in Yazd, who got completely passionate after hearing me sing, organised a jam session for me, and whom I met again in Esfahan. There the story took a wrong turn but it wasn’t his fault at all, if anything I am the one who involuntarily put him in trouble. You’ll know more about that in a little bit, when I tell you the bassiji story.
The less good stuff
If I am completely honest though, it has not been completely idyllic. I had a few bad experiences as well but don’t forget that one can have there anywhere – I had them in Iran, but also in Serbia, in Turkey and in India. There are idiots everywhere! You should A L W A Y S be careful, travelling solo as a woman (as a man as well, if you ask me).
Some little things are more anecdotal, like the time I had to walk on a different side-walk because my male companions were scared (paranoid?) about getting caught walking with me. There was a police car around and it stressed them. I walked for one kilometre on the other side of the street, then we spent the whole evening together and nothing happened.
But I do have a bigger and not so pleasant story though. I feel like the whole of it was pretty much my fault. Here is what happened. I was hitch-hiking around a little Island called Qeshm with another female traveller who had no experience hitch-hiking. We got into a car where I would I never got in, had I been alone, but I guess I wrongly assumed it was safer because it was the two of us. I do not think that this driver was really a dangerous man, but he was completely over himself for having these two (European) women sitting next to him. He wasn’t even driving straight for staring at me, which was already quite unsafe. After make gross suggestions, which I pretended not to understand (although my Persian was by then not so bad), he pretty much started touching himself while driving. I warned my friend, who was sitting at the back and had unfortunately not been paying any attention to what was happening, that we had to get out of that car as soon as possible and that she should be ready for it. I pretended to feel sick and made the driver stop the car. I ran away a little bending over as if throwing up – that’s when the hospitable Iranian side took over as my driver started running after me… holding a box of tissues. I managed to get rid of him by calling our host in Bander-Abbas who readily told him a bunch of lies to get him to leave (by the way, at that host’s place, it was me and three guys, and there again, not the slightest ambiguity whatsoever).
And the good stuff again, because one should always stay positive!
After the weirdo driver was gone, we were left alone on an empty road. We saw a herd of camels and their drivers crossing the road, that was fun. It was the first time I had seen so many and “wild” ones at that (well, they were not wild, but not captive like they are in a circus or zoo in Europe).
After that, we were picked up by two men in a taxi for what turned out to be one of my best hitchhiking experiences ever. Those guys took us to another little island off Qeshm, a very peculiar and interesting place where you could even more clearly feel the genetic influence or the presence, hundreds of years ago on Qeshm, of the Brits, the Portuguese and the Portuguese’s slaves. The guys we met owned much of the Island, if I understood well. They drove us around, fed us, we went for a little improvised safari and saw local gazelles and a beautiful sunset. Then they drove us back to the port and to the main Island at our request and arranged (and paid for) a taxi back to the main port, from which we went back to the mainland. We felt completely safe the whole time and it was a beautiful experience! One of my best hitchhiking experiences, actually.
Beyond good or bad: the slightly scary stuff
I feel like I should mention this here because it does have to do with male/female relationships in Iran. It would not have happened if I had been walking with a female friend or on my own, I believe. One evening, a few days before I flew to India, I was controlled by the bassiji. It’s not really the police, it’s a militia. I was walking in the side-walk with a male friend, the same one I had met in Yazd. We were supposed to go to a party with musician friends of his. We met on the street and started heading to the party. After a few minutes, out of nowhere (and I mean it – one second the street was empty, and the next…), a white car stopped at our level and five big men wearing black clothes came out of it. My friend hastily told me “Alright the story is, we’re going to the pharmacy and I am going with you in order to help you get what you want”. He was intelligent, he also told them he didn’t have identification on him. They asked us many questions, took my passport (“Oh no! We’re going to spend the night somewhere being interrogated” I thought). They took his phone though and called themselves to have his number. We were both extremely frightened. Luckily, I didn’t have to lie when they asked me “Where are you staying? Is your friend male or female?”. – I was staying with a female friend. Finally after a phone call and some discussion, they put us against the wall and took pictures of us, took pictures of my passport too and finally gave it back to me (RELIEF!). Before leaving, and upon seeing the look on my face, they felt compelled to show us a so-called “order of mission” (had they been following us? me? my friend?) and to tell me that I should not be worried, it was for my own safety, I should not be frightened. Ahah. Ahahah. When they left, we were both shaky and distraught. I was really worried that my friend would get into more trouble because of me, I knew that it was unlikely they would do anything to me. We cancelled all our plans for the evening and walked to the pharmacy anyway, just in case the bassiji were following us, and we bought… well, whatever, it was just a cover. On the way back home, my friend said “I would so need a hug right now” – that wasn’t possible, out in a public space. We then wanted to stop in a place to smoke some shisha and try to relax, but women were not allowed in the place we tried. So we went back to our respective homes. The bassiji’s aim and job is to scare you – they do a really good job, believe me. From what I gathered, this kind of things happens more often in Isfahan, because there are more tourists there. But however scary, this one experience did help me to understand A LOT about the Iranian society. There is no other way to understand the level of paranoia that seems to exist between Iranians than to experience this first hand. I myself was completely paranoid for the next three hours before calming down. The bassiji adventure sure gave me a lot of insight about Iran…
All in all
Do not be deterred by this last story though. Go to Iran! All in all, travelling solo around Iran has been a most amazing experience for me. The hospitality culture in Iran is simply unfathomable until you’ve experienced it, and it’s been by far the easiest country to travel. The overall feeling was that Iranians were thrilled to meet travellers, to see people who were “courageous” enough to come to their country despite the propaganda the Western media distillates against it. It’s one of the rare places where you don’t feel like people are trying to trick you or to sell you something in the end etc. They are just enjoying practicing their English, or simply your being there. I’ve been taken into homes, taken in by families, hugged by numerous Mums and Grandmas, I’ve been trusted a lot. Iran is also the only place I’ve been so far where people keep asking you if you’re alright up to a week after you’ve left their place. That’s how well they take care of you there .
For my first night in Iran, I slept in a teenager room’s. I was not allowed to share the same room at the hotel with my fellow male travellers, because I wasn’t married to any of them. So my teenager wanna-be-host begged his parents to let me stay at their place for one night. It was the first time his parents were allowing anything like that. The next day, a friend of his mum’s came to visit. When she learned that I had slept in his room she said “But what if she had killed you in your sleep?!”. She thought of me as a predator ! I found it quite hilarious. Sometimes the situation is not what you think.
All in all, I also felt a strong connection to all women in Iran. Some sort of solidarity. Something like “we’re in the same boat, you and I. We’re on the same side”. It’s hard to explain, it was mostly expressed only through looks and faint smiles, but I felt it strongly. Maybe I misinterpreted?
Be warned though: even thought I’ve managed to stay with locals the whole time, but every other traveller I met said they needed to book private rooms after two to three weeks. Iranian hospitality is marvellous but can be quite overwhelming for Westerners. So be ready .
So overall, I had an incredible time in Iran. Actually, I’m planning to go back there. I didn’t feel the pressure of men looking at me – like I did in India for example. One of my friends did though -she felt like a giraffe she said – and she would not tell you the same story. Why is that? Am I just really lucky? Really good at ignoring what I don’t want to see? It’s a big question, I’ve spent quite some time thinking about it, but it will be for another time.