Salam! I heard this word very often in May of this year. Hello! Hey Hi! Good day! Anyway, everyone in Iran greets you. Whether that is the famous Persian friendliness or just the joy of seldom seen tourists in a land of high culture, which many mistake for a training camp for Islamist terrorists, does not matter at first.
It’s good to see so many friendly faces. I have never experienced this warmth to such an extent. Whether in Southeast Asia, in Turkey, in nearby Italy – you usually know the nice, open-minded way of dealing with tourists. But my experiences in Iran in terms of hospitality are better than anything else: The Persians think it’s good that I travel around Iran as a western woman and they let me feel this joy at every opportunity.
In any case, I did not expect such a reception. On the street, strangers speak to you and welcome you to their country. You are invited home for dinner, the taxi is paid for, you are shown around town or village without accepting anything in return; the list of kindness and humanity is endless. Our acquaintances, for example, took on the comparatively expensive entry to the Golestan Palace in Tehran. At the end of our trip we didn’t even have to pay the hotel; we were quartered with our new friends and were able to experience the full broad side of oriental host qualities.
But despite all the positive feedback, as a woman in Iran I was always very vigilant, which causes my presence there as a halfway emancipated (which is what we mean nowadays) woman. In short: Iran is an Islamic state in which Sharia rules, i.e. Islam – the religion – is anchored in the law and everyone who lives there must adhere to these laws. The tourists should also bow to them, even if it is “just a religion” for us. For the government it is the law, the truth, a duty.
I will briefly mention what the population thinks in a paragraph at the end. First of all, there are a few rules of behavior that you should and must definitely observe, despite the general rather relaxed approach to public relations (contrary to what I expected), so that the journey is not spoiled by the moral police, unpleasant looks etc. becomes.
The most important rules of the game for a woman in Iran:
1. The hijab – the headscarf
To be worn in public, in hotels and cafes. In the metro, on buses and on planes. So wherever you can’t close the door behind you and see strange men. For me, as a woman in Iran at 35 degrees Celsius this is the ass card, in Germany it is an accessory in spring, but in Iran it belongs on the hair instead of the neck.
How much or how little the headscarf has to cover your hair depends on the city or area you are in. In the beginning, I meticulously made sure that I couldn’t even see my blonde hairline. At the end of our three-week trip, however, I only wore my scarf loosely over my topknot in Tehran – like an estimated 70% of the younger Persian women. A subtle kind of revolution.
And so I would recommend it to any woman in Iran. In short: it MUST be worn, the hijab (that’s what the law says). Above all, however, if you don’t want to be summoned to the police station to spend two hours doing a moral sermon or possibly something more unpleasant. How much hair you want to show off despite your headscarf ultimately depends primarily on your courage and your feminine environment. Observation is everything. But it can also backfire. I just want to make my personal recommendation here.
Which headscarf you wear in Iran is up to you. You can find simple yet very chic headscarves at Peek & Cloppenburg, for example.
2. The Manto – the coat
Also part of the dress code for Iranian women: a slightly longer coat that extends over the bottom to the middle of the thighs / knees at best. Untapered. Not tight. It’s best to take 1-2 tunics or a long, thin and, above all, loose cardigan with you. Or a caftan.
With wise foresight, I bought one in advance from Monki and was even eyed jealously by many Iranian women. Of course, fashion is seen and worn there too. Whether hip or not, unfortunately you / women in Iran have to wear some kind of coat, otherwise the consequences can be similar to those of not complying with the hijab law … women in Iran have to go through that. However, this is also often interpreted very loosely by Tehran women, namely in the form of a tight, hip trench coat.
The manto is not to be confused with the chador, the black, cowl-like cloak that only leaves the face free. You really don’t have to do that to yourself!
3. Long clothes
Leggings, jeans, linen pants, skirts, dresses: everything is allowed. It just has to go down to the ankle. And when I say: ankle, I also mean: ankle! The incredulous and perplexed looks from the man and woman in Yazd (extremely hot and extremely old desert town) were enough for me when I was wearing a black, loose dress that “only” went up to about 4 cm above the ankle. Fortunately, I didn’t have any problems other than my well-being.
But that again differs from area to area. This “casual” type of clothing is forbidden everywhere, it is only tolerated from time to time. In order not to get into trouble, I would try on EVERY item of clothing before traveling to Iran and see how long it actually is on the body.
I was able to make the choice of outerwear a little more relaxed. It should be something wide, and long sleeves are actually a must. But often I just rolled it up a bit or turned the blouse up to 1-2 times. Must be so much fun!
4. Women to women, men to men
Although the relationship between the sexes is quite relaxed, as an equal woman from the West you should bite your tongue from time to time and let the habit be the norm.
For example, in Iran a man usually only literally greets and says goodbye to a woman. When you know each other a little better, men shake hands or even give each other a hug.
On the bus, the woman is sitting next to another woman, her husband or nobody. There are separate compartments for women in the metro (but not a must). Any physical contact between man and woman, including between unmarried couples, is officially forbidden in public and not welcomed.
This goes so far that as a Persian boy & girlfriend you neither get a hotel room together, nor do you sleep together. As long as you are unmarried, you usually still live at home with your parents – which increases the marriage rate and then the divorce rate rapidly. As a western tourist couple, I had no problems getting a hotel room with Clemens. When asked whether one was married, it was often enough to just smile nicely and nod gently.
5. Female intuition is not forbidden
This little set of rules is of course a bit strange for every woman who wants to travel to Iran and at first glance it is also quite cumbersome. Basically, I would still advise everyone: Just stick to it.
Of course it gets annoying quickly, but you get used to it pretty quickly. Above all, you will quickly notice when the rules can be relaxed a bit and what reactions this elicits. Dealing with strangers in public is also not a problem: You chat, you laugh, you can ask questions and order your own Coke in the restaurant.
And with this point I come to the last big question that arises: Why is the population doing all of this? Do they like that? And what does a headscarf have to do with religion?
Conclusion: It’s all a question of female intuition
Every man and woman in Iran with whom I spoke about these customs on this trip (and there were astonishingly many who raised the subject of politics and religion on their own) spoke out against many of the regulations and laws. For my part, I would very much like to elaborate on it, but I definitely want to travel to Iran again. And in order not to jeopardize this chance, I will refrain from further explanations on critical aspects of Iran in this article and in any comments. Sounds absurd, but it’s true.
But the population definitely deserves my applause; I got to know very intelligent, open-minded and courteous people there, who played a major role in the fact that this trip will be remembered as one of the best.
- Travel time: 3 weeks at the end of May / beginning of June
- Places to visit: Tehran, Kashan, Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz
- New Facebook friends: 11
- Headscarves worn: 3
- Lost headscarves: 1
Good travel literature? My recommendations for Iran:
I have had good experiences with Lonely Planet Iran – in my opinion the best travel bible by far for Iran too.
Alternatively, there is the Travel Know-How Iran and the Iran Travel Guide from Trescher Verlag – both in detail as usual, but very few photos. The latter has just been revised.
I also think the DuMont Art Travel Guide Iran about art, culture and architecture is great. It is even more authentic in the book Couchsurfing in Iran by Stephan Orth, who writes openly about the unknown sides of the country – including forbidden alcohol and wild bikini parties. Here you get a good impression of what makes young people really tick in Iran. Tip: I also appear in the book myself …