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
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.