The Iranian


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Sehaty Foreign Exchange

    News & views

How the other half lives

By Sally Ramsden
Independent on Sunday (London)
March 25, 2001

Why go on holiday to a country where the local women are shrouded top-to-toe in black sheets and where the official penalty for slipping your veil is a flogging? No reason, except that, paradoxically, Iran turns out to be quite the friendliest, most trouble-free country for a foreign woman traveller anywhere south of the Channel Tunnel.

There is some bad news, however. The compulsory cover up, or hejab, starts with the visa application. You don't have to wear a black chador or "tent" as the term translates in Farsi, but you do have to wear a headscarf for your visa photo before you leave or you won't be going anywhere near the Islamic Republic of Iran.

At Tehran airport I went through passport control in the recommended outfit - a below-the-knee black raincoat, dark trousers and headscarf. I felt a mixture of humiliation and irritation at being forced to cover my hair, and some guilt at having betrayed all the Muslim women who have fought long and hard against the veil.

In this unlovely, secret policeman's disguise I hit the streets of fashionable north Tehran and really felt a frump. All the more so when I found myself among trendy young women wearing visibly tight denim jeans and high heels, loose, long anoraks or baggy jackets, huge fringes and tons of make-up. The extent to which women cover up is, it seems, a matter of class in Iran, and upper and middle-class women dress at the limit of what is permissible.

But there's also good news. Iran has none of that hissing, calling and touching that women endure when travelling in countries such as Turkey or Pakistan. There are no men following you around, unlike the first time I visited Paris. The main drawbacks for women travellers are an itchy scalp and flat hair caused by the headscarf. But since most of this vast country ranges from baking to boiling hot, most, if not all the year round, you generally need something to keep the sun off your head, even in midwinter.

Iranian men are almost all charming, friendly, respectful and very, very helpful. "What's your name?" "What's your country?" "Come to my home and meet my family - do you like Manchester United?" These are the common male refrains on any major street. Charm is mixed with business. If Iranian men want anything at all it is to sell you a carpet. It is not your body they desire but your dollars.

As Iran opens up to tourism once more, the arrival of foreigners is having a strange equalising effect on all the carpet merchants, taxi drivers, hoteliers, guides and waiters who now wait eagerly for foreign customers. As far as they are concerned, tourists who have flown thousands of miles to go on holiday in a place where not so long ago their government staged fervent demonstrations against yours, must have generous natures and be very rich indeed. Foreign tourists are given the respect routinely reserved for large piles of hard currency.

Although I met several pairs of young European women going overland to Pakistan and India who experienced no problems in Iran, I think my trip was made easier by being with a male companion and by spending the first of my three weeks on a tour. I deliberately chose the one UK-based company run by an Iranian woman because I wanted to travel with someone who could offer access and insights into local culture. We could learn the ropes, and then go it alone.

After taking in some wonderful museums amid the otherwise ceaseless hubbub of Tehran (don't miss the Carpet Museum or the Glass and Ceramics Museum), we flew down to Shiraz, a relaxed southern town on the edge of the desert at the foot of the dusty-pink Zagros mountains

Here we explored onion-domed mosques, opulent palaces and the tombs of poets, with fountains and tea gardens thrown in. The gardens were essential resting places as it was very hot indeed. Soon half the women in our tour group were cruising around the main tourist sites in nothing more demure than baggy shirt, baggy trousers and rainbow coloured headscarf. At first I stuck to a long black polyester robe lent to me by a fervent friend in London, but in ancient Persepolis, status symbol of Darius the Great and the site of his magnificent summer palace, my resolve crumbled. The 2,500-year-old ruins just outside Shiraz are so vast and so exposed that I changed into cooler floppy trousers and shirt, plus beach sarong wound round my head in turban style.

On one occasion, in Shiraz, I was obliged to hire a flowery cotton chador to enter the shimmering, seductive Shrine of the Lamp decorated with thousands of tiny mirrors. But when I wandered off on my own into the depths of the medieval vaulted bazaars to look at old mosques, caravanserai and baths hidden down alleys not mentioned in any guide book, no one, as usual, seemed to mind.

In the old city of Yazd, with its wind towers and Zoroastrian fire temples, I walked around dark twisting streets by night and provoked not so much as a wolf whistle. And no one blinked at my more Western dress in the ancient oasis citadel and crumbling mud city of Bam in the south west.

Not all Iran is fervently Islamic. This only really began to make sense when I ventured outside the main towns to visit more ancient ruins and meet nomads. Out in the countryside and more remote regions half of all Iranians are not Persian at all; they don't speak Farsi as a first language and, in many cases, don't hold much truck with central government and its Islamic edicts. The many different ethnic and religious groups all maintain their own identity, including wearing costumes ranging from gawdy glistening robes for village women to full tribal garb.

And, despite all sorts of pressures since the revolution, women are highly visible in almost every walk of life: in the workplace, on the street and in the tea house - perhaps even more so than in more "liberal" Islamic countries such as Morocco and Egypt, and a world away from the sexual apartheid of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

As for me? To Iranians I probably looked like any other silly foreigner no matter what I wore. Not that they minded one bit - as long as I spent my money and kept my headsquare on, that is.


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