Some afterthoughts on travelling in Iran

20150601 Yazd Imamzadeh Schrein P1170310

Before we left we had no doubt that we would enjoy travelling in Iran and contrary to many reports we read we never worried about safety in the country. What we had in mind when we thought of Iran was mostly top-notch sightseeing, very friendly people and good food.

On the other hand we also noticed that many articles and blogs, perhaps in response to the bad image they had had before they went, or to the bad image of Iran in their own country’s media, tend to paint Iran in very rosy colours. We feel these black-and-white descriptions only mirror the propaganda apparently prevailing in both Iran and the US (at least we cannot confirm the bad press for Germany).

As we wrote in our previous post, we loved our almost three weeks in Iran, but (as in all countries) there were also some annoyances.

Travelling in Iran as a woman

woman with hijab on an Iran toilet sign

The most unnerving detail about our visit to Iran was, in fact, the hijab law that required us to cover head and arms and feet whenever we were in even a semi-public space like a restaurant or a hotel corridor. This meant that to go to the shared toilet of a cheap hotel room in the middle of the night we had to put on a headscarf, which we found ridiculous.

In the larger cities many Iranian women interpret the law rather loosely, and we didn’t feel so much out of place although the fiddling with the headscarf (“Is it falling off? Do I look like a country bumpkin? Why is it so hot?”) bothered us more than we had expected.

But then in more conservative places and as soon as we got a little more into the countryside – a local bus 5 km from the city centre would be enough – every woman around us was wearing black, either very long coats with black headscarves and dark blue long garments visible beneath, or outright chadors. In brighter colours and longish, loose-fitting blouses we were sticking out quite a bit, and uncomfortably so.

In Mashhad, a very conservative city, women regularly „ts-ts“’d at us and sometimes reached out to rearrange the headscarf which they deemed „haram“ (unlawful) if it was possible to see some part of the neck. They did this nicely though. We think that wearing headscarves should not be such an issue as it is in many European countries today – if people want to wear one, why shouldn’t they? But on the other hand we didn’t expect this to be such a large factor in our experience of Iran.

Travelling in Iran as agnostics

wall painting of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran

Similarly, we found it rather patronizing that overland busses stop not at meal times but explicitly at prayer times, and everyone has to get off the bus then. Don’t get us wrong, stopping for prayer time is fine, but we found it rather irritating having to get off the bus at five in the morning just to sit in front of a shop for 15 minutes before we could stumble back into the bus with the other passengers after their prayer. And really everybody went praying, except for one young Iranian woman who waited for a pick-up by relatives.

Another surprise concerned food: We had expected delicious vegetarian options, because Persian restaurants in Germany have quite a lot of choices for us – but then there were not many restaurants to begin with, and those served almost exclusively meat and chicken. We suppose that Iranian women don’t really enjoy eating at a restaurant where they have to remain wrapped up in long cloaks; and also that people who do eat out want something difficult to prepare at home such as roast chicken and charcoal kebab. Whatever the reason, falafel sandwich or bread and cheese for 2 weeks was a bit disappointing.

Me too in Iran

Male behaviour towards us as two women travellers was most of the time quite courteous, but there were two very different towns – freewheeling Shiraz and ultra-conservative Mashhad – where men would hiss at us from the side or from behind, whispering „hello-o? Helloooo!“, sometimes even followed by „fuck fuck fuck“. In Nishapur a man followed us on a motorbike on a lonely road for quite a while, passing us, then stopping to wait until we passed him again. Overall annoyance was quite limited compared to some Arab and African countries, where we had to deal with this a lot, but were also prepared for it. In Iran we had not expected such behaviour – and it surprised us. 

Apadana ruins in Persepolis
Ruins of Persepolis, Iran

Iran is not a very cheap country to travel; prices are on an Eastern European level. What bothered us in this respect was that entry fees for foreigners are about 20-fold compared to the ticket price for Iranians. Thus, all sightseeing spots or cultural assets cost around 5 Euro, which is an absolute bargain for Persepolis, but strange for minor sights.

Would we visit Iran again?

That said, we met a large number of very friendly people and especially liked the fact that many middle-class Iranians themsevels enjoy travelling in Iran. People would come up to us and start a conversation. Quite often they were women in their 30s or 40s who were not married, and confided that they did not want to marry; they were educated and open-minded. As a traveller or tourist in the country you might get the impression that Iranians all have satellite TV, use devices to get around the internet censorship (yes, no facebook and youtube) and even brew their own beer at home. But we are also very aware that this is very likely only a small percentage of the population.

Would we visit again? Definitely yes. Iran is one of the most intriguing countries we have been to and we made some great new friends there. 

Related Post: As a vegetarian female traveller in Iran

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

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