Beyond the Veil – A Woman Travels in Iran

by Rachael Rowe

A British woman reports her experience as a female traveler in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As the plane descended into Shiraz, a transformation came over the passengers. Each woman silently took a scarf and covered her head. All arms and legs were shrouded in clothing with no flesh left exposed except the face. It was as though a curtain had fallen on one lifestyle, and another was about to begin. This was my first insight into travelling as a woman in Iran.

How Not to Have a Bad Scarf Day

One of the first things a woman needs to get accustomed to in Iran is the clothing. Women are covered from head to toe, and visitors are expected to do likewise. Preparation is essential as legs, arms, and your head must be covered at all times, apart from in your bedroom. Long tunics and trousers are ideal. Many Iranian women wear a lightweight coat over trousers. Planning your wardrobe is vital before you go as you will need to be dressed correctly from the moment you arrive.

I had many “bad scarf days,” with fabric slipping and sliding all over the place. Although this marked me out as a hapless tourist, I soon learned from another woman to use material with a bit of friction, like cotton, to cover my hair. A supply of hair grips is essential. Too late, I discovered YouTube videos on how to wear a headscarf and could have practiced at home before my journey. In Iran it is important to respect these customs as a visitor. There are morality police who walk the streets and will reprimand anyone not dressed correctly. If you travel with a local or a guide, they will get into a lot of trouble if you are not appropriately covered.

The Land of Hospitality

I was mesmerised by the Persian gardens in Iran with their water features and intense scent of orange blossom. Many date from the 18th and 19th centuries, like the Orangery in Shiraz, and are intricately structured. One of the finest is the Bagh-e-Fin in Kashan with artesian water channels and a beautiful central pavilion. The gardens were also where I encountered some of the most memorable welcomes in Iran. A party of schoolchildren were intrigued to see me walking through the gardens and ran up to me. In some countries there would be requests for pens, but here in Iran each child offered me something from their lunch box and insisted I try something. I didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day!

A car full of people screeched to a halt in front of me as I walked back to my hotel. What did they want? Two men jumped out and I prepared for the worst. But smiling, they simply welcomed me to Iran and thanked me for visiting the country before driving away.

The Islamic Republic of Selfies

I sat in a rooftop café in Yazd one morning, looking out over the desert city. I had just visited the Zoroastrian sky burial sites where people once left the dead to be consumed by vultures. Today, these ancient towers stand outside the city as a reminder to the past and one of the world’s oldest religions.

Close by, a group of young men and women were talking quietly. One of the men walked over and asked me to join them. I was hesitant but could see the women smiling. They were all medical students in Yazd and had just finished an exam. One of the ladies was training to be a neurosurgeon, while the man who had invited me over was into orthopaedics. Eager to practise their English, they bombarded me with questions. The students were intrigued to know what I thought of Iranian driving. We all agreed that traffic in Iran is abysmal. In fact, of all the warnings I had about travel to Iran, the one thing no one mentioned was the horrendous driving standards where anything goes. Apparently, selfies are big in Iran, and I got dragged into several photos. Facebook is banned, but people are into Instagram.

The House of Strength

Later that evening I visited a House of Strength. The tradition goes back to the fall of the Persian Empire and the rise of Islam when warriors and athletes were no longer able to train and perform traditional sports outdoors. Instead, sports clubs grew up all over Iran, firstly in private homes and then into the covered domed structures used today. In this way, the tradition of keeping their minds and bodies healthy was maintained. As the first century of Islam progressed following the fall of the Persian Empire, these organisations were viewed as legitimate sports clubs in Iranian society. Today, they are part of Iranian culture, but would they allow me to enter as a woman to watch men exercise to a turbo charged version of calisthenics? In fact, as long as I removed my shoes, I was very welcome to watch what was a remarkable display of discipline from the men.

Another spectator explained how the team worked together as a small boy served me a cup of sweet cinnamon tea. The energy and strength as the rhythm gained momentum and 25 kilogram clubs were tossed around like tennis balls was impressive.

Isfahan is Half the World

The Khaju Bridge is a focal point for tea in Isfahan and is where the locals congregate around 4 p.m. This sixteenth century bridge bisects the Zayandeh River and was built by Shah Abbas II, the man responsible for most of Isfahan’s exquisite architecture. As I gazed out across the river, a group of old men offered me tea from their camping stove. They met at the bridge every day and were eager to know my impressions of Iran. This was typical of my experience in this country in that the people were so welcoming.

A group of ladies approached me with their 12-year-old son. They wanted him to tell me how much they appreciated me visiting Iran, which he did. As I spoke to him and asked him about school and sport, a proud mother was videoing the conversation, her eyes brimming with tears of pride at how well her son could speak English.

In the centre of Isfahan the Maydan-e-Imam is an immense public square flanked by mosques, the Qapu Palace, and a gigantic, covered bazaar. There were tea houses tucked away in back streets, stalls with rainbow-coloured scarves, gem shops, and a nougat-like sweet known locally as gaz. The main mosque, Masjed-e-Imam, was resplendent in blue and white tiles, the architecture stunning. But would any of the mullahs speak to me as a woman? Yes, they did. Sitting in the courtyard of this famous mosque, I was able to discuss the history of the square and inquire about the mullah’s thoughts on terrorism associated with Islam. He felt that all religions should work together to resolve these issues and achieve a peaceful solution. “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Beyond the Veil

As a woman travelling to Iran, I had several people advise me not to go. In fact, I found it a warm and hospitable place to visit with the people of Iran the stars of the show. I have traveled the world, but Iran, by far, offers the biggest welcome to visitors, especially from the locals. True, there are political issues, but beyond that this is a nation steeped in history and culture. It is a place I would return to in an instant.

As the plane took off from Tehran and veils were removed, it was as though I was returning to a different world.

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