Can you travel to the Iran as a Western woman? What are the Do’s and Don’ts? How should you behave? Do you have to wear a headscarf as a Western woman in Iran? Here is my field report after 5 weeks backpacking in Iran.
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“Salam!” It’s just one single word and yet I have heard it so many times last May when travelling to Iran as a woman. Or Hello, hey, hi, good Morning! When in Persia, it seems like everybody welcomes you to the country. I mean everybody! I am not completely certain, if this is the famous Persian kindness or pure pleasure about the fact to spot a tourist that are rarely seen in a country of a very old high culture, but also a country that unfortunately is often mixed up with Taliban boot camps.
It’s just amazing to recognize all these friendly faces around you. This kindness is something I have never experienced during my travels ever before. I know that open-minded friendliness towards tourists is certainly very common in many tourist regions throughout South East Asia or in Turkey or South Italy, but the experience that I made in Iran has topped everything else. The Iranian people seemed to really like the fact that a western woman is traveling through their country. Maybe that is why they let me feel their joy about it at every opportunity and in all possible situation.
To say it straight, I would have never expected this response. Unknown people started to talk to me on the street and immediately welcomed me to their country. Even better, they invited us home for dinner and sometimes even payed our taxi bills. The people do not only want to get to know you as a person, but always want to tell you the history of their cities and villages – not wanting to receive anything back in return like money or buying stuff. The list of humanity and friendliness is endless! One of the guys me and Clemens have met in Tehran, for example, even took over the relatively high costs of the admission to the famous Golestan Palace in Irans capital. Just imagine that in the end of our backpacking Iran trip we didn’t even have to pay a hotel, because one of our new friends invited us over to stay at his place. I guess this is oriental hospitality at its best. Thanks a million, guys!
But despite all the positive responses, I have always been vigilant as a woman in Iran, about what my presence as a halfway emancipated woman in this country (what ever that means nowadays…) could cause. In short, Iran is an Islamic state in which the Sharia is law. In other words, Islam – the religion – is embodied in the law and everyone who lives there has to comply with these laws. Of course, tourists should also act according to these laws, even if for the most of us, it might be “just a religion”. For the government it is the law, the truth, a duty.
In the end of this post I will tell you shortly about what the major part of the population thinks about the topic. But first of all, here are the most important rules of etiquette or better said Dos and Don’ts when it comes to the Iran dress code for women. Please remember: These are r-u-l-e-s! So in other words, you have to follow them as a female tourist. Do not let the fact confuse you that (unlike what I had expected) public behavior in general seems quite loose. If you don’t want to come in conflict with the vice squad, these rules should better be respected.
Iran Dress code for a woman travelling:
1. Hijab – The headscarf
As a western woman in Iran, you should wear a hijab everywhere: on public places, in hotels, cafés, in the metro, in buses and on airplanes. So really everywhere, where you cannot close the door behind you and just be on your own. To be honest, due to the fact that in the first days of my trip we had 35° celsius, wearing a hijab was just annoying. While in Germany or other states a scarf is a nice accessory, that you wear at the neck, in Iran you wear it on your head.
The good news is, you get used to wear it. It depends on the situation and the place or city, how many or how few hairs you should cover. In some regions like the Capitol Tehran you can wear the scarf just loose over your topknot like I did and show your hairline. In the beginning of my Iran backpacking trip I always took care of not showing too many hair (blond – OMG!!!), but you will get more confident with the time and will get a feeling for the situation. Most of the younger Persian women also are very easy in wearing their hijabs. Could that be a their little revolution…?
As I said, in most places there is no problem to wear it loose. However, please remember that you have to wear a hijab. I don’t think that you would like to stay at a Persian police station for a couple of hours to be given a sermon or even worse things. In the end, how many hair you should show just depends on your courage and the situation. But that is just my opinion. So better watch out!
When traveling to Iran as a woman you may sometimes show hair.
Nearly every younger woman in the big cities of Iran has a good taste and shows that on the street.
2. Manto – The jacket
Another part of the female dress code is a Manto, a longer jacket that reaches to the mid of your legs. Not tapered, not skinny. My advice is to take a few tunika or a longer, light cardigan with you.
I was lucky to know that already before my flight to Iran, so I ordered a very light one from the Monki store. Surprisingly most of the women I have met during my trip liked my dress and wanted to know immediately where I have bought it. Just like anywhere else, nearly every younger woman in Iran is totally into fashion, so it is no wonder that you can see many very well-dressed girls on the street.
However, whether hip or not hip, it’s a fact that you need a long dress you can wear in public. Otherwise not doing it can the same consequences than not wearing a hijab. But don’t panic, many persian women in the bigger cities like Tehran also wear tighter, more colorful and more stylish trench coats. Chapeau to that!
A little advice: Don’t mix up a Manto with a Chador, these black, huge cloaks, where the only thing that is uncovered is the woman’s face. You really don’t have to wear that!
Women in Iran – More hair then we expected!
3. Long clothes
The most important thing first: No legs, no arms, no skin! Leggings, jeans, linen-pants, skirts, dresses, everything is allowed. Important is to wear it in a long version, because every dress has to reach down to the ankles. And I REALLY MEAN to the ankles. My worst experience was in the extrem hot and sandy city of Yazd in the south of Iran, where I made the “mistake” to wear a black dress, which was 4 cm too short to cover my ankles and feet. As a result everybody just starred at me and at my feet, from man to woman, from children to elderlies. That was not so nice.
But then again the dress code can be very different from place to place. While in one city something is completely forbidden, it might be tolerated in the next. In any case, I would recommend to try every piece of clothing at home first, just to see how long and covering it really is.
Actually there is something you can choose more loose: the upper-wear. Of course it should never be tight or transparent, but long. Here is a little tip: roll up your sleeves at anytime just as I did. A little bit entertainment is essential, you know.
Traveling to Iran as a woman: colorful dresses for the small, non-alcoholic party at home
4. Women to women, men to men
Although the intercourse between the sexes is quite easy, in some situations it is better for an equal western woman in Iran to just shut up and stay on the sideline.
For example, a man welcomes women in Iran usually only verbally, not by handshake. In case they know each other better men give each other a hand or even a hug.
That is actually a kind of behavior that you can see nearly everywhere: In the bus a woman in Iran just sits next to another woman, next to her husband or nobody. In the subway there are even special train compartments for women, but they are also allowed to use the normal ones if they want to.
Another thing is that any physical contact between a men and a woman in Iran, and even more between unmarried couples, is officially forbidden in public!
Also for unmarried couples it’s not easy to meet in public and act out their relationship. Even better: Unmarried Persian couples are not able to get a hotel room. Maybe only with fake rings… That is why in Iran, as long as you are not married, you usually live at home with your parents, what is driving the marriage rate and the divorce rate rapidly in height. On the other hand, Clemens and me, as a Western unmarried tourist couple, had no problems to get a hotel room at all. When someone asked us, if we were married, we just answered with a smile and a friendly nod.
Together with new friends in the Golestan Palace in Tehran.
5. Female intuition is not prohibited
For any woman who wants to travel to Iran or go backpacking in Iran this small set of rules is, of course, something unusual and at first it might look quite awkward. Basically, I would still suggest to just comply with these rules.
Of course it is annoying, but you will get used to it quite fast. Above all, you’ll know when to relax the rules a bit and what reactions you have to expect. Similarly, to speak to unknown guys in public is not really a problem. You are allowed to talk to each other, you are allowed to laugh together, you are allowed to order your coke in the restaurant by yourself.
And this brings me to the last big question: Why are the people of Iran doing all this? Do they like it at all? And what has a headscarf to do with religion?
Conclusion: It’s all a question of female intuition
Every man and woman in Iran, everyone with whom I have spoken on my trip about all these practices has spoken out against many of the regulations and laws – and there were many who spontaneously came up with the topic of politics & religion by themselves. For my part, I would love to have a closer look. However, I would also love my trip to Iran not to be the last one in my life. Therefore, I will refrain in this article and in any comments from other remarks on critical aspects of Iran, as I was given the advice not to publish a too critical article on a website. This might sound absurd or overcautious but I hope you can understand.
The population, however, definitely deserves my applause. I have got to know very intelligent, open-minded and courteous people who have large share in the fact that I will always remember this backpacking trip to Iran as one of the best trips in my life.
Hard Facts about traveling to Iran as a woman:
Time of my trip: 3 weeks in late May / early June
Places visited: Tehran, Kashan, Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz
New Facebook friends: 11
Worn headscarves: 3
Lost headscarves: 1
Hooked? Check out the complete Guide to Backpacking Iran – all you need to know. Also don’t miss the best Sights and Cities in Iran: Highlights from 1001 Nights.
Planning a trip? Check out my favorite Iran travel guides:
I made good experiences with the Lonely Planet Iran and I think it is still the best traveler’s bible for backpacking Iran. But there is also another very useful Iran travel guide by Bradt in English language that is a good deal. t
Furthermore, if you are interested in the history and background of Iran and Old Persia, have a look at Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic and Iran Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day. That give you a good overall understanding of the country.
More Articles about Iran Travel:
• Backpacking in Iran: All you need to know
• Iran Highlights: Best Sights and Cities – Hightlights of 1001 nights
• Golestan palace in Tehran, Iran: a tiled beauty
• Should anyone travel to countries that violate human rights?
• Shiraz in Iran: Anekdotique of the Day
This post is also available in Deutsch.