Home to one of the oldest civilizations in the word, my beloved poet Hafez, spectacular Islamic architecture and silk road heritage. I had been looking forward to visit this intriguing country for so long, as I was often told that Iran must be the safest country in the world, the Persian people the kindest on the planet, and that a visit starts with opening your mind and saying “yes” to everything.
“Welcome to what could be the friendliest country on earth”, the Lonely Planet opens its most recent guidebook, two of the mayor subtitles being “The beauty of Islam” and “Redefining hospitality”. Talking about setting standards high!
When starting my journal about this country, however, I can’t help but look back on the above quotes with bitterness. I feel like I was ill informed, by the guidebooks, the forums, the traveller’s reviews,… While Iran is no more dangerous than the average country, a big shadow looms over my experiences of the past three weeks: a bitter taste that is related to the exact opposite of the things mentioned in the guidebook. I would call them “The oppression of Islam” and “A great deal of harassment”. In summary, I would highly suggest any female traveller to not say “yes” to everything. If I had, I’d probably be fucked a hundred times by now.
So unfortunately, before I write anything else, I feel like posting this honest and perhaps negative prologue. I know a lot of people won’t like it. I know a lot of female travellers come back from Iran with nothing but positive experiences and a lot of Iranians do not want to hear stories like mine. But I’ve backpacked this country for a while now, and I’ve spoken to many females like me. I’ve heard plenty of similar experiences, and a few that were quite a bit worse. I know for certain that I am not alone with this opinion. And I feel, very strongly, that this side of the story needs to be told more. Not because I want to portray Iran in an overly negative light, but simply to present a different perspective. It was mostly because of the rosy image that guidebooks and forums present about Iran, that I was not sufficiently prepared for how isolated and intimidating a solo female trip in this country can be. And while I still enjoyed my journey, it pays to have a realistic expectation, not an overly optimistic one.
My journey through Iran has led me to believe that one’s impression of the country, the people and the hospitality is influenced immensely, if not completely, by your gender and whom you’re with. In summery, walking the streets of Iran as a female is a completely different experience when you are alone, in a group of women or with a man.
When with a man, most people will automatically assume you’re married (even when the dude speaks a different language, is Chinese and 20 years older). It might mean you’re approached by couples and families though, and that’s always nice. Families aren’t usually after sex (that would be super weird). So your chances of being invited for tea, having long innocent chats in the park or even visit their home will increase greatly.
When walking alone as a woman however, the only people who approached me were (mostly young) men. Where did all the families go all of a sudden? How come they loose their interest in conversation when a tourist is alone? Is travelling solo really that disgraceful?
Men obviously didn’t seem to bother. Conversations always started in the same, cheerful way: “Hello madam, where you from? Welcome to Iran!”. That’s nice, for sure. But from there, it was impossible to tell where it would go next.
Sometimes they wanted to sell me something or practice their English. Fair and pleasant enough.
More often, they’d want my phone number or Facebook. I asked many guys why on earth they’d approach unknown girls for contact details, or why their Facebook friends were all Western women. And the explanation I got most often, was “No, not looking for girlfriend. Just looking for passport”. These guys told me they need connections abroad, to send them visa invitations.
Even while their pursuit might be understandable, it was not really the kind of conversation I hoped for. In fact, it gets super annoying when you’re approached like that ten times a day (which was the case especially in Esfahan). Also, what makes these people think only women can send visa invitations?
Even more common than “passport hunters” were the men who wanted to take my picture or show me their town. Initially I wasn’t too worried, because in Uzbekistan and Indonesia (for example) many locals wanted to take a picture with me too. But those were all kinds of locals: schoolgirls, students, families, women,,… In Iran, it were only the men. And that means trouble. That’s not “hospitality”. That means they’re after something.
I soon started to realise there was a price to pay for “innocent photo ops” and free tours around town. These guys would parade travelling women as if they were a trophy, showing them off on as many squares as possible. They’d take cheesy selfies with their arms around my shoulder, like I was their best friend. I can only guess what stories they’ll make up when they show those pictures to their friends. And that’s about as much thought as I want to put in to it.
Now, if you find the above to be still pretty innocent, you’re right. I wouldn’t even call this harassment. But from there on, things got worse.
Men would shout at me from their cars or motorbikes: “Hey lady, come to my house, let’s have sex!” They’d try to grope me in busy bazars or metro stations (but thank God they never succeeded). Young kids of only 8 or 10 years old would chase me on their bicycles making jokes in Farsi, laughing at me and screaming “sexy sexy, fuck you!”. Men would ask for bikini pictures, or my bra size. All of these happened more than once, at least once every day. And I got tired of it. So tired that in the end, I put on my bitch face whenever I walked out a hostel. I’d avoid eye contact with all men and stopped replying to all their hello’s. It was extremely frustrating, because I very well realised that by doing this, I also cut out all the genuinely nice people. I missed out on the good experiences, the friendly chat, the invitations for tea. When walking around with fellow travellers they’d scold me for my “rude” behaviour. They’d say things like “why don’t you smile back and tell them where you’re from? They’re just trying to welcome you to their country!” And it would upset me a lot, because really, those people travelling as couples cannot imagine what it’s like walking around on your own! And I’d get sad, realising every day that I was missing out on something. That I wasn’t having the hospitable experience other travellers were having. That there was a nicer way of travelling, of meeting people, of being invited for dinner. One that I, as a single woman, didn’t seem to have access to.
The days went by and I got more and more silent. I was so tired of conversations heading in the wrong direction, or false hopes of genuine intentions being smashed, that I stopped trying to connect with random locals all together.
Luckily, Iran is full of backpackers and plenty of them are going solo. When I met other single ladies, we’d complain at length. Sharing my experiences and hearing that I was not the only one felt really good, because in the beginning I feared that my uncomfortable experiences were my own fault! I had started to worry that perhaps I did something wrong. Was it my clothes? The way I walked? Did I smile too often? If all the people and guidebooks tell you that Iran is so safe and so friendly, than what made my experience so different? I pondered about it for many an hour, but in the end I concluded that the only thing I did wrong, was being a solo Western woman. Apparently, when you are “free” enough to travel by yourself, it means you are “free” enough to have no morals and therefore would like to have sex with everyone.
The worst harassment I personally experienced, happened in Esfahan right after sunset. I was walking down a small street next to one of the mosques, looking for a restaurant. Nobody was there apart from some guy who started walking next to me. Same banter as always: “Where you from? Where you go? Come to my car?” At first I thought he wanted to offer me a taxi. “Thank you sir I don’t need your car.” I started walking faster, he walked faster too. That was the point where I realised he was not a taxi driver, and also not your standard kind of creep. I stopped, turned to him and told him very harshly to stop following me. “I don’t want to talk, leave me alone!” Instead, he grabbed my arm, stepped closer, whispered “God you’re so sexy” and started masturbating to me in the middle of that god damn street, with the shadow of a fucking mosque looming over his face! Completely surprised by what had just happened, a wave of disgusted rolled over me. Without thinking, I pushed him away as hard as I could. As he stumbled backwards, I could hear porn sounds coming from the phone in his pocket. I don’t even know when and how he managed to switch that on. When he made an attempt to step closer again, I stretched my arm in front of me and shouted at him even louder: “Leave! Go away! Go!” I could see a car at the end of the street, with some women in chador getting out. At the other end, an old man on a bike was riding by. I knew they could hear me, and the creep knew to. He ran off in a hurry and I walked as fast as I could towards the main road. When I turned my head to glance over my shoulder, I looked right into the courtyard of the mosque. The women in their chador were crossing the open space like black ghosts in the limelight.
The same night, two other men tried to grope me saying “come fuck lady, pretty pretty!”, but I wasn’t even impressed any more. For the first and only time in Iran, I was too angry to be polite and just swore back to them. “Get out of my face you filthy pigs! Fuck all of you!” I shouted while picking up a stone from the floor. Of course they just started laughing… and I still regret not throwing the stone.
When I got back to the hostel, my Couch Surfing account had twenty three invites for a hang-out in Shiraz. Seventeen of them were offers of sex. I overheard the girl in the bed next to me talking to another room mate about how all her money got stolen in Tehran. And a French friend texted me about how she got physically assaulted by a taxi driver in Tabriz. That was, by far, the most desillusional day of my trip, and the term “redefining hospitality” ran through my worried mind more than once that night.
I’ve never been to India or Egypt, which both have horrible reputations for girls travelling solo. I realize there are countries far more unsafe than Iran, both for women and men. But for me, Iran was the most unsettling place I’ve ever travelled too when it comes to harassment. While I had been fortunate enough to feel completely at ease in Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and in the past travelled almost incident free in countries like Morocco, Turkey and Indonesia, the harassment in Iran has affected me greatly. Perhaps it left its mark not so much because of the severity of the incidents, but because of their consistent appearance. It made me feel uncomfortable by default, and perhaps it also led me to being offended by things I’d otherwise ignore, feeling threatened by people who actually had good intentions, feeling uncomfortable in situations were I shouldn’t.
“The beauty of Islam”
There is another thing that made travelling through Iran hard for me, and perhaps this is a more personal one: I had honestly not expected that the weight of the hijab on my head would be so crushing. I’m not the kind of person who goes to Morocco in shorts and a tank top. I don’t mind dressing conservatively, and I always aim to fit in as much as possible. So before I left to Iran, I didn’t think I’d have a hard time adapting to the dress code.
But I was so wrong!
It’s not just that those long sleeves and thick scarves are hot as hell and super unpractical (which they obviously are). It’s that they are compulsory.
Now I know many of you will tell me “this is something you know beforehand, and if you don’t like it, just don’t go to Iran”.
Before my trip, I had often seen pictures of tourists in Iran secretly dropping the scarf. I got the impression some of them were on a photo mission to get the most shocking shot: standing in the middle of a street wearing just a bikini, swimming naked in the Persian gulf, taking the headscarf of inside an important mosque. It seemed like some sort of game, a bucket list thing to do: take the forbidden picture. At the time I thought it was pretty disrespectful, and it kind of outraged me.
But perhaps I didn’t understand…
Perhaps it was not about the picture.
After only one week, when a fellow traveller and me entered an old hammam in Kashan, we saw this banner:
Literally every Western tourist who turned the corner and read the text started laughing. Especially the women seemed very annoyed, logically. And as stupid as it may seem, I as well got pretty angry.
All my life I have been trying to be as tolerant as possible to all kinds of religion and traditions. I have, and always will, defend the right of women to wear a hijab when they want to. But in Iran, I saw and spoke with too many females who hated it. Girls who didn’t want to sit in the back of the bus. Who would love to be allowed to sing in public, who would prefer not having to whisper when talking about politics. I can only imagine what it must be like, living your life like this. Because after just a few days, I felt suffocated.
Among female travellers, we’d often make bitter jokes. When walking around the streets and a group of men approached, we’d say things like “Iranian hospitality is coming in 3, 2, 1” and sure enough, at the end of the count down, some of the men would say “hello sexy, where you from” or something similar. We’d tell each other “your boob is hanging out” when our scarf showed a little too much neck. We’d refer to the Iranian flags as “colours of repression”. All that frustration after just a few weeks! I didn’t imagine that would be possible. And yet it happened.
The longer I stayed in Iran, the more annoyed I got. At one point I noticed that I pulled my hijab tightly shut every time I felt uncomfortable or threatened by male attention, and that realisation pissed me off more than anything! When and how did I teach myself such a stupid reaction? It’s an act that leads to absolutely nothing. That stupid scarf doesn’t grant any security from “the hazards”! It doesn’t stop the stares. It doesn’t cease the sexist comments. It does fuck all! And still I would grab it closer as if it was an armour that would protect me. As if the bliss of forced Islamic attire would save me from all evil. In that second of first realisation I remember I thought only one thing to myself: “This is it… Get out! Get yourself out of this shithole of a country.” Of course that was a bit too extreme of a reaction. And Iran surely isn’t a shithole of a country. But for some reason I felt like the doctrine was starting to get a hold on me, and it scared me. It enraged me. It puzzled my “free spirit”.
Sure enough I didn’t get out. I endured a little more harassment and I sweated some longer under the metaphorical weight of the scarf. In the end, I skipped my intended visits to Yazd and Tabriz and decided to go straight from Qeshm to Tehran and over the border to Armenia. I had enough.
I do not regret my journey to Persia. While it were the cat-calls and inappropriate requests that made me cross the border more hastily than originally intended, I have left the country with a heart full of good experiences and wonderful encounters.
There were, for example:
- My dear friend who took me shopping for a manteaux, offered me delicious food and showed me art galleries and her university in Tehran.
- My equally dear friend in Esfahan, who taught me so much about the local architecture and invited me to her family for board games, tea and dinner.
- The amazing staff of the Taha Hostel in Shiraz, who did everything they possible could to make me feel at ease, at the time where I was stressed out most.
- Assad and his heartwarming family in Qeshm, with whom we went hiking, shared many dinners, and learned how to bake Iranian cookies,…
- The incredibly hospitable people on the bus to Yerevan, who took such great care of me (for the whole 24 hours of the journey!) and therefore made me leave Iran in great contentment and comfort.
All of these people have created a home for me, have taken care of me, have worried for me, and have showed me the beauty of Iran and its people.
When I was alone and felt upset or saddened, it even were the poems of dear Persian Hafez who brought back the love and wanderlust to my eyes.
This sky where we live
Is no place to lose your wings
I realise this is a very harsh and negative blog. A one sided one, no doubt. I have long been hesitant about posting it, because I know it will be a bitter slap in the face of those who have welcomed me so dearly. I am most afraid of offending these people, as it is not my intention. I want them to know that I am forever grateful for what they have done for me, and that it is the memory of them that will stay in my heart. It is their legacy that I will cherish. When I look back to this trip and remember their country, it is their faces I see. Not the struggles, the discomfort or frustration, but the kindness and love of the people who have treated me as family.
After all, there is a lot of beauty in Iran, and a lot of truly redefined hospitality. By no means I intent to ignore or forget about that!
May the gratitude in my heart
Kiss all the universe
Note: Please, as a follow up to this post, also read my afterthoughts on the many reactions I received on this topic.