The picture painted of Iran in the west is one of tyranny and repression. An Islamic state in the grips of Sharia law, a land where women are silenced and hidden. A faceless ‘other’. The people of modern Persia don’t reflect this reputation. In reality, Iran is brimming with spirited, confident women. Renowned for their hospitality and their charm, every second person you meet in Iran will insist upon welcoming you warmly into their homes. For solo female travelers the Middle East can seem daunting, but following these tips for traveling to Iran as a woman will help you integrate amongst the incredible women you will meet in Iran.
Tips for Traveling to Iran as a Woman
Sometimes your hijab falls off
By law, all women travelling or living in Iran are required to wear a hijab at all times. Annoying for a day or two, you’ll quickly get used to the scarf, particularly if you invest in a light silk one, or any other breathable material. While it is a legal concern, the majority of people in Iran are far more lax than the law dictates.
The first time my hijab fell off, I was taking a picture of the immaculately decorated ceiling of Loftollah mosque. I panicked, conscious that I was flouting the rules in a place of worship. I was quickly assured by some local girls next to me, who laughed and said that it happened all the time. That there was no need to be stressed about it. Iranian women came to terms with the occasional impracticality of the scarves long ago, and they won’t chastise you for making mistakes.
You should always cover your head, arms, legs and chest while in Iran. It’s an element of their culture, and if you are choosing to visit their country you shouldn’t disrespect that, regardless of personal beliefs.
The dress code differs in different cities
Iran is a huge and diverse country, and the cities are no different. Be aware of the common devoutness of the city that you’re heading to, and dress accordingly. For instance, in the capital city of Tehran, a light hijab hanging loosely over your hair is perfectly acceptable. Women in Tehran are glamorous, wear designer clothing and will have no problem with you not being heavily shrouded. If you head from here to the nearby city of Qom, or north to Mashhad, the story is entirely different. You will need to cover any sign of hair with a cap or bandanna, underneath your hijab. You will also need to wear a chador through much of these cities, a very large piece of material that covers your body entirely. Be sure to research your intended destination before you set off, and if you’re ever in doubt just pay attention to what the Iranian women are doing. Follow the locals.
Men stick with men, women stick with women
There are many situations in which the genders are separated in Iran, and generally in the Middle East. In the basement coffee/shisha shops there are different rooms for different genders. This offers a wonderful opportunity for meeting local women, and for understanding how men and women behave differently in their own spaces.
Greet people correctly
Typically speaking, men will greet other men by shaking hands, but will not shake hands with women. They won’t touch women generally, which I don’t think is a bad thing when compared with the wandering hands of many men in the west. There is no problem with men and women talking, laughing, hanging out in public. Don’t take it personally that they won’t shake your hand, it’s a mark of respect.
There is also different rules for knocking on doors. On many doors in Iran you will see two knockers, one intended for women, one for men. This is common in more religious households, so that women can answer the door to women, and men can open the door to men. It would be considered improper for someone to usher in a person of the other gender in more traditional homes.
Generally speaking, the rules for traveling to Iran as a woman are fairly simple. Follow other women, trust their knowledge and their intuition- there’s is no better guide.