Here’s one for all the ladies out there: a list of women’s travel tips for Iran, covering everything from how to dress to the right way to board a bus.
Setting foot in a new country is a thrilling moment, but it can also be an intimidating one. A new country means a new culture, a new set of unspoken rules that you’re expected to follow, yet can only learn by trial and error. Do I kiss two times as a greeting, or three? Is that banana a decoration, or part of the meal? If I wear shorts, will I be arrested?
Iran is no exception, and because of its seemingly strict Islamic nature, it can be particularly intimidating at first. I was constantly on cultural tenterhooks during our first couple of weeks in Iran. I was worried I’d overstep boundaries when talking to men, or break some religious rule unbeknownst to me, or be arrested by the mythical morality police for being scandalous and flashing a bit of ankle in the streets—my god! To make things worse (in my mind, anyway), I’m brown, and could easily pass as an Iranian. I can’t just slide by on the foreigner card at face value!
I need not have worried. The world didn’t end when I talked to men. Allah did not smite me the times my hijab fell off in the mosques. The morality police don’t actually exist, except for the occasional public holiday–gotta fill those police quotas, ya know.
I did, however, learn a female code of conduct (of sorts) during my two months in Iran. Here’s a roundup of what I learned, so future ladies don’t have to worry about making the same mistakes I did!
A guide to female travel in Iran
Getting dressed as a woman in Iran
There are a few dress rules for women traveling in Iran. I’ve summarized them below.
Always wear a headscarf in public
You probably already know this if you’re thinking of heading to Iran, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate it, just in case.
Don’t try to enter the country without a headscarf
It’s not possible, and you don’t want to be trapped at the border for something as trivial as a scarf. Keep a scarf or shawl ready in your bag for the walk through customs.
Follow other women’s examples when deciding whether or not to wear a headscarf in private areas
Some families are liberal in the home, others are not. All of them will say you should do what you find comfortable… which can be distressingly vague! Just do as others do.
Follow hijab, the dress code for women in Iran
Wear long pants and a sleeved shirt (or cardigan) that covers your butt. 3/4 length sleeves are fine, and skinny jeans are the norm for young girls in Iran. If you want to dress like a local, “manteaus” are the most popular form of dress for girls in Iran, and can easily be purchased all over the country. If you’re still worried about upsetting the mythical morality police, Travel Geekery put together a post about what to wear in Iran.
If entering a mosque or shrine, wear a chador
Chador are long (often black) cloaks that some women wear over their clothes in Iran. Most mosques will hand them out at the door, so no need to go and buy one for yourself. You’d get a lot of giggles if you wore one around outside of mosques as a foreign woman in Iran.
If you want to lounge in your bikini on the beach, head to the women-only section
There are a few beaches in Iran, and on good days locals love to enjoy them. There are men-only areas, women-only areas, and family areas. If you want to get your tan on, head to the women-only section, but don’t expect to see many women in bathing clothes. If you want to chat with the boys in the mixed gender area, you’ll have to cover up. Beware of strange tan lines!
Out and about in Iran as a woman
If asking for help, approach a woman first
But, of course, if there aren’t any women around, just ask a man. The world won’t end.
If a tea house is filled with only men, don’t go in
Many tea houses are men-only, and though it isn’t an official rule, you’ll probably be the first woman that’s walked in in the last century or so. Never fear, Iranians are tea addicts–you’re bound to find a female-friendly place if you keep on walking.
Keep an eye out when entering mosques and shrines—there’s often a separate women’s entrance
Just do a little lurking around the entrance if you’re not sure, or look for a chador station.
Enter city buses from the middle of the bus, and sit in the back
There are separate male and female areas in buses, women in the back. Could be discrimination, but it’s handy for keeping frisky men from feeling up unsuspecting women. When it’s time to pay, exit the bus and lean in through the front entrance to pay the driver.
If the back of the bus is packed, use some of the back seats in the men’s area
Waste not, want not! Don’t use the seats if there’s a guy already sitting in the row, though.
If you’re invited by a stranger, only go if there are other women present, or if you have a male travel companion
It’s not appropriate for lone women to accept invitations from men. Unless, you know, you’re trying to get into his skivvies (which is fair game).
If taking the metro in Tehran, feel free to sit anywhere you want
The fact that there’s a women-only section doesn’t mean you have to sit there! It can be convenient during rush hour, though, when the men’s section is fit to burst.
Avoid sitting next to strangers of the opposite gender on any kind of transportation
This includes buses, shared taxis, and minibusses. People will usually shuffle around a bit to get the order right. If you’re a solo woman taking a taxi, sit in the front passenger’s seat of the taxi. If traveling as a couple or with a guy, sit wherever you please.
For more tips on taking taxis in Iran (and how to avoid being ripped off), check out our guide to taxis in Iran.
The male species in Iran
Don’t instigate handshakes with men
Instead, place your right hand over your heart, and nod your head a bit in greeting. If the guy is a bit more liberal, he may offer his hand for you to shake anyway.
Watch out for bum bandits
Unfortunately, random men groping your bum is somewhat common in crowded places. If it happens to you, or if someone is being even more forward, make a scene, or shout at the man. It’s a very severe religious offense for men to do so, and they’ll quickly back off in fear of getting caught. You’ll also probably rally a couple of other (more friendly) Iranians to come to your aid.
Be polite but distant with single men
If you get too friendly, they may interpret it as sexual interest, regardless of whether or not you’re with another guy.
When in doubt, just say you’re married
Yeah yeah, I know, it’s bad that women have to say this to keep men away. But things aren’t going to change overnight, and in the meantime, you don’t want Sir Creeps-a-lot following you down the street asking for your hand in marriage for the next hour, do you?
When posing for photos with guys you don’t know, don’t touch each other
An arm around the shoulder will lead to an arm across the back will lead to a pinch on the bum… which, in my humble opinion, should lead to a slap on the face. Feel free!
In the same line of thought, if traveling with others, don’t give in to requests to take photos with only you unless you want to
It’ll give them the wrong idea, and again, feel free to slap them in the face if they’re being too forward.
Things to remember as a woman traveling in Iran
Remember that you’re a visitor in someone else’s country
There are many practices and mindsets in Iran that, as a woman, you might find frustrating or offensive. As a foreigner, it’s not your place to try and change them–change must come from within the country, not from a bunch of outraged female travelers burning their hijabs in the central squares. Respect the country and its customs while in Iran, and you may be surprised to find how much of an effort people will make to respect yours in return.