Travelling in Iran as female vegetarian travellers

Iran is a fantastic country to travel. But two topics dominate our practical travel in Iran: being vegetarian travellers, and female dresscode.

Natascha and Isa dressing up in Iran: in a shrine in Isfahan
If you don’t bring your own chador to a Shiite shrine as a female traveller, you have to don a rental one

After one week travelling in Iran we can say for certain that we like the country tremendously. Actually we never once thought that we might not like Iran – unlike some other (even European) countries. Sometimes we have lengthily debated beforehand what we would do „if we are stuck there for 2 weeks“ because of a booked return flight. By contrast, we had seen pictures of the beautiful Islamic architecture in Iran. And of course we had some historical sights in mind – big names such as Persepolis and Isfahan that send you dreaming just by the sound of it. If we go it should be at least 5 weeks or so, we had always agreed. Now finally, we have made it, albeit just for a little more than 2 weeks and as a prequel to a work trip in Central Asia.

“Weren’t you afraid?”

Just as expected, our first impression of Iran is very advantageous, with friendly people and a cheerful, relaxed atmosphere. And yet, whenever we talk to Iranians – and we do that often because so many people want to chat – they seem concerned: „I hope you have a good impression of Iran? Weren’t you afraid? Didn’t you think Iran was a dangerous or aggressive country?“ are some of the first questions Iranians have.

Indeed, we were never particularly concerned or nervous (except regarding the visa number that failed to materialise until shortly before take-off). But whatever the propaganda may be in the United States, Iranian propaganda about anti-Iranian propaganda in the West seems to be just as successful.

revellers at night on Isfahan's Mt Sofe
Especially on a weekend, Iranians spend the night relaxing and picnicking in the parks

When they hear that we are from Germany, most people relax and comment that we are the same race. After all, the name „Iran“ comes from „Aryan“. Obviously they don’t realise that the Aryan stuff makes us feel somewhat uneasy on the grounds of not-so-recent-anymore history. Probably this is a very German concern.

Female travellers in Iran and the headscarf question

And then, the discussion usually turns to some tricky questions of everyday life: the headscarf question, in particular. Iran has (in theory) very strict laws ordering women to cover up completely.

We had read beforehand that we wouldn’t have to wear a chador, that shapeless large black cloth that must be incredibly hot in summer.

„In summer I feel like a boiling pot – and I try to stay inside“ .

a young woman in Mashhad
underwear and bras in the Tehran bazaar

Nevertheless we were clearly required to cover our hair as soon as we left the plane. In addition, the clothes should not reveal any body shape. But, if you think about it, this is a very vague advice – how long exactly? How loose-fitting exactly? How much hair, ankle, neck may be seen? We have brought some loose-fitting long blouses and long-sleeved T-Shirts we can wear over our normal trousers. Still, we continiously compare our outfit with the more modern Iranian women. The rules are fluid, Iranian women tell us, it depends on how much you dare to deviate from the legal norm.

The scarf

In fact, more than half the women are wearing chador, but even many of them show some hair. Others wear stylish, figure-hugging summer dresses over jeans, combined with a dark, nun-like headscarf. Others balance the headscarf somewhere on the back of a hairbun and make up for it with a long flowing blouse and closed shoes. And so on.

We both have short hair and the headscarf just slips back very easily. There are places like the metro’s women’s car where you can even take off the headscarf to readjust it. In contrast, elsewhere, like in the women-only section in a Shiite shrine, you have to cover up even more. More than a headscarf means wearing a chador. The clothes question was never one we gave much thought before, but to our surprise it has become an issue for us.

Being vegetarian travellers in Iran

Another thing we wonder about is food, not least because vegetarian food is a tricky issue in nearby countries such as Uzbekistan. However, being vegetarian travellers we were rather looking forward to Persian food. From one of our favourite cookbooks – Veggiestan – we know there are a number of great vegetarian dishes in Iran. Unfortunately we figured out that these are home-cooked dishes. When Iranians go to a restaurant they want to eat meat instead. Thus, the choice for us as tourists is rather limited and we have Falafel sandwich most evenings. Iranians tend to chuckle at that notions because they don’t consider Falafel sandwich a real meal….

We got an invitation to an Iranian home once, though, where our hosts cooked a fantastic vegetarian dinner for us. Apart from that there are freshly squeezed juices and a lot of different sweets and ice-cream. „Iranians love everything sweet, and because of that we have many diabetics!,“ another young woman tells us. It may not be healty, but as vegetarian travellers in Iran, sweets are a major source of nutrition …

We still have another week in this amazing country and we will come back for sure. More blog posts about Iran are to come.

NB: Our travels to Iran were not sponsored in any way. We paid all travel expenses ourselves.

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  1. A good read. People seem concerned that you like their country and that’s a good sign. In many countries where there are a lot of tourists many locals just don’t care what you think of their country, they’re just kind of sick of the you :). We had the same kind of concerns when we visited Colombia back in 2006, it really seemed important to people that we left with a favourable opinion of their country.
    That’s an interesting remark on ‘Iran’ coming from ‘Aryan’. Didn’t know that. I agree its something we we would never feel very comfortable talking about (my parents both born in Germany).
    Look forward to your next post, Iran intrigues both of us. And the vegetarian question always important for Lissette. At least they have falafel. We were in the Czech Republic and she got sick of always eating that fried cheese 🙂
    Good post,
    Frank (bbqboy)

  2. I was given this link by Eliot, a colleague at work and a cousin of the writer. A very good article and this reinforces the sentiment of noted travel writer Rick Steeves on his visit to Iran. It certainly makes me at least consider a trip to this country where before I would not.

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