Hands down, Iran was the most intriguing country for me to visit. I anticipated, researched and tried to imagine it. The emotions were mixed with fear, coming from poor understanding of the destination and even worse perception created by western-media, and with the excitement to be able to see a culture so old and prosperous.
Even getting a visa felt like going to a final oral exam in Uni, only finding out that the questions were really simple and professor was super chilled. But as a good student I had prepared well, covered up in full length, having a scarf wrapped around my head and neck so tight, I looked like a Russian porcelain doll who was taken out for a walk to Siberian cold (note: we did visas in Thailand, where temp was about +32C).
I knew, it wasn’t anymore the Iran in its 70s where skirts were short and pop-rock was blasting through speakers. What I didn’t know though, that it was the Iran where hijab was pinned down with Gucci pin covered in Swarovski, nose jobs were posh and black was in season. These are my girly mental notes from the short visit to this Persian pearl.
Stripping down from the feminist gene
Born to a country where women walk and talk free, I felt some sort of resentment to the hijab and clothing standards. What do you mean, I HAVE to wear something against my own will. What do you mean I cannot wear short tops or pants when it’s burning hot outside?
How will I survive…?
Well, the hard pill was much easier to swallow as I understood that it will be their way, or behind the bar way. So I sucked it up – only 2 weeks I told to myself.
We entered Iran through northern border, from Armenia. Where one world ends, the other starts .
“So when exactly do I have to put the scarf on?” was my first question to the Armenian border guards. As “now” was the best time, I bundled my orange faded scarf around me and moved forward….
Arrived to the border to discover there is literally no one to greet us. Some time passed and we could hear someone dragging his slippers from the distance. It was a surprised officer who was puzzled to see us at 8 PM on the crossing point that gets mostly only truck drivers and not so many random backpackers walking in by foot.
Our passports were taken to a thorough inspection that ended with a warm welcome from the border chief – for Andre. Yes, there I was left out. But having done my research well enough, I knew that shoving my hand and needing a welcome pinch is not the tradition nor a custom. And yes, hands and handshake is seen as a very intimate action which is clearly out of the norm with strangers.
But then again, I knew it all was coming and that my small inner feminist was better to put sitting still and just go with the flow to experience the country to the fullest with its pros and cons.
.. are first of all drop dead gorgeous! Seriously, the big eyes, emphasized by thick black liner, oval faces with high cheek bones
accompanied by straight and perfect nose, all under smooth make up, made the women just absolutely stunning.
Iran, and Tehran more so, is the capital of “nose jobs”. To have one done, is a sort of privilege and wearing the small bandage over the stiches is seen as a statement piece. But a place where your face gets most of the attention of first impression, it is more than understandable why women emphasize some techniques to another.
You know when a girl has some bucks to spend, when she wears a designer scarf, that is secured tight down with special hijab pins, what are covered with Swarovski Crystals and flashy jewellery. A hand bag that reads “Michael Kors”, is a perfect companion for the luxury iPhone and other knick-knack. And a half or full length coat to match every piece of the outfit with matching shoes to shine.
For the more religious type of girls, black is in all year round, and cloak like clothing called chador, can be found matching all tastes and sizes with one exception, the colour being only black. These are sold in every market and shop that caters for the more modest Iranian women.
For all the others, especially young women, a colourful roosari or a scarf that covers fraction of head, and a knee length coat, known as manteau, covering bum and elbows is the typical clothing worn on the street by locals and tourists pushing the boundaries of regulated norms.
Behind the closed doors and drawn curtains
This is where the magic happens. Where the hair is let loose (or not) and long cover ups are changed to hip and short, tight and bright party clothes. Yes house parties are the place to be and the place to show off.
During our CouchSurfing in Esfahan, I was lucky enough to take part of the girl’s night in, while boys where having fun in all-male spa. And what I witnessed was a totally and somewhat even boringly regular girls chit-chat night. With lots of tea and biscuits, watching videos of weddings and sharing photo memories from school times.
The only thing different was the fact that back home, few bottles of wine would have been included in the menu. In Iran, where drinking is prohibited, the glass of white is not as common guest on Wednesday nights, but not totally stranger during some of the bigger parties happening away from the curious eyes.
Women in society
The women role in the society might seem repressed by the commands of Qur’an to Westerners, but being able to witness the relationships of men and women inside intimate family surroundings, I realized my ill logic and shallow perception.
I saw women and men acting equally as partners in the relationships. I saw men who adored their beautiful wives and made sure they had the best treatment. I saw humble men listening carefully, what their women were telling them and trying to make decision that compromised with both parties. I saw happy people in healthy relationships, not women being put on a lower step on the ladder due to gender.
In the larger picture – I saw women and men taking courage to protest against the Iranian strict laws.
I saw women “accidentally” loosing the grip over their roosari and expose all their hair. I saw men lavishly kissing and hugging their girlfriends on the street corners, and I saw young and hip girls and boys hanging out in shisha bars for their night out.
Asking around from religious and non-religious people if Iran, most of them showed concerns about the laws and are eager to see country to come back in its liberal state where everyone can be free in their ways of dressing, thinking, acting and believing.
Social media has had a huge impact on the silent protests and expressions of courage. A Facebook page to follow and support the cause is found here https://www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom/ which was started by a young Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, today living in exile in Great Britain, by posting a picture of herself without hijab. Despite the Iranian governments outrageous smear campaign, she has today encouraged thousands of women to uncover their hair and has nearly million followers of the page.
Do’s and don’ts
- Do respect the countries customs, by wearing a scarf, long pants and a longer coat.
- Don’t worry so much about doing something wrong. The morality police won’t drag you to jail, but in worst case scenario will make a note to cover up a bit more properly.
- Do be curious to enter to mosques, tea houses and markets. Locals will be happy to show you around and let you know if some places are not for women by customs.
- Don’t hesitate to lure around alleyways and corners. In worst case, you will be followed by puzzled looks of older ladies minding their daily business.
- Do enjoy talking with random people on the streets. We found Iranians being one of the most open and welcoming crowd who are literally excited to see tourists in their country. They will make sure that you have the best and safest time and are eager to give you tips on how to cross a road safely or what to do when there is a spare time in hand.
- Don’t restrict yourself when invited to a dinner or a tea with locals. This might be one of your finest memories of that country.
- Do politely reject 3 times of any offer for a tea, dinner or free commodities by a stranger or even your host. This social behaviour is called t’aroof and it gives the offerer a chance to be polite, even if they cannot full fill the intended act.You will find yourself in situations where buying groceries the shop keeper happily offers you not to pay the bill, but after rejecting the offer for 2 times he is happy to receive your payment.
- Don’t reject the offer when the request is made by 4th time. This means the invitation is real and you are expected receive the things offered.
- Don’t ever forget to t’aroof and accept the offer without giving a rejection 3 times, as it is impolite and will cause misunderstanding.
- Do take the time and go to the beach. All though, I did make it, a highlight travel tip from other female travelers, was the women only beach in south.
- Don’t strip down into your bikini on a random beach. This is a big no-no even to more casual peeps.
And last but not least
- Do visit this country now as they are still quite untouched by hordes of tourists.
- Don’t stay for a week but aim for a month, you will even find this time to fly by too fast.
The end of the journey
I can tell you this, that orange scarf gave me a lot of annoyance as It got stuck or attached everywhere, or when waking up at night bus feeling strangled by the darn thing around my neck. But then again, it offered me a lot of protection of cold, left me felt quite comfortable and protected from the by passers eyes, and I even felt somewhat naked after returning to my “free world”.
I saw Iran, that needs at least another 10 pages to be written about the delicious food, mesmerizing architecture and abundant culture.
But I will keep those pages to myself, and encourage everyone to see and experience it themselves.