The night before I enter Iran, a sliver of a moon hangs suspended opposite the cloud-shrouded peak of Mount Ararat, barely illuminating the Turkish border town of Dogubeyazit.
This dusty part of the world is sliding rapidly into the longest, hottest days of summer. The new moon heralds the beginning of Ramadan and also, coincidentally, my period. It’s an inauspicious time to enter a country where summer temperatures can soar past 120 degrees Fahrenheit and where religious observance is legally enforced in public life (making eating or drinking during daylight hours in Ramadan a lashable offense). Menstruation, aside from being impractical, is a simple reminder that I am a woman—worth only half of a man according to the sharia-aligned legal code of the Islamic Republic.
A seasoned solo traveler, I have been eager to reach Iran for several years—ever since I first (belatedly) realized that the country was indeed open to tourism. Traveling alone as a woman is not always the easiest option, as the State Department patronizingly points out, but I am not patient enough or anxious enough to wait around for someone to accompany me. I am also vaguely offended by the notion that I should have to.
But I’ve done enough research by this stage to know that being an itinerant single woman in Iran won’t always be a cakewalk. In the cramped room of my cheap Dogubeyazit hotel, I attempt to prepare for two months in hijab, assuming I’ll be able to tie my headscarf in a way that is both elegant and functional. After constructing a series of elaborate but unorthodox turbans—my hastily purchased scarf suddenly seems to involve too much material—I give up, frustrated, and go to bed.
The next day, after a bumpy dolmuş ride, a long walk through barbed wire borderlands, and a cursory interview with a female border guard, I stomp into the rock-strewn western reaches of the Islamic Republic. Perhaps because of, rather than despite, being a woman, travel in Iran—especially finding accommodation—is absurdly simple. I use a mixture of Couchsurfing and cheap guesthouses (mosaferkhane) for my first month or so in the country, making my way along the relatively well-worn tourist trail stretching from the northwestern hub of Tabriz, east to Tehran, and down to Shiraz in the south.
Within hours of arriving in Tabriz, the capital of West Azerbaijan province, I have already leapt heedlessly onto the male section of a public bus, consumed food in public, and spontaneously hugged a man on the street (my host, Hossein, who was noticeably taken aback. Physical contact with an unrelated member of the opposite sex is deemed “indecent” and illegal, but in the rush of our meeting I completely forgot the pertinent social codes). Tabriz, like most Iranian cities, is quiet during Ramadan, its usually buzzing bazaar forlorn throughout the day. But the fruit-sellers remain and are thrilled to see foreigners, loading us down with free produce and encouraging us, despite Ramadan, to taste their wares. We emerge from the market having spent no money yet with sufficient provisions for a furtive picnic.
The generosity of everyday Iranians, the immediate impulse to feed and welcome a stranger, will become apparent throughout my trip. Days later, I find myself in Gazor Khan, a small village deep in the Alamut valley—a thick gash cutting haphazardly through the craggy Alborz mountain range. It’s cherry season, and the harvest is underway: trees throughout the village drip with globular red fruit, both sweet (gilaz) and sour (albaloo), and the tiny main square is a screeching mess of Iran’s ubiquitous blue pickup trucks intent on bringing produce to market. I eventually find my way back to my guesthouse, where my generous hostess, who believes me to be impoverished, serves me a free dinner.
The guesthouse proprietress is not entirely incorrect about my financial status: I have run low on rials and won’t be able to get more until I reach Tehran. Economic sanctions leave travelers unable to use ATMs or credit cards, so visitors must carry all necessary cash in euros or dollars and exchange currency once inside the country. My situation is potentially dire and I need to get to the capital, where moneychangers monopolize entire streets. Given the excessively warm welcome I have experienced so far, I make the optimistic decision to hitchhike out of Alamut. At 7 a.m., cherry trucks still congesting Gazor Khan’s town plaza, I begin to plod down the access road, making desultory attempts to flag down vehicles.
The Kurdish village of Nowdeshah, nestled high in the Zagros mountains.
A cherry pickup comes careening down the hill within minutes, ten or so men loaded in the back. “Excellent,” I think, planning to leap aboard and join them, but the pair of workers seated in the cabin insist on squeezing me in the front. Wedged between the driver and his friend—both of whom begin to question me about my marital status (I point to my various rings, mumbling about a husband in Tehran) and my alcohol consumption (“Vhisky, vhisky?”)—I begin to feel distinctly uncomfortable. We honk at every passing car, so the boys can display their cargo, and they snap several selfies with me. The situation devolves into several urgently requested kisses and one not-so-sneaky (probably quite disappointing) boob-grab.
I briskly corral my barely existent Farsi into a string of broken phrases implying that the men would never do such a thing to an Iranian woman, shaming the cherry-pickers into sheepish submission. They eventually drop me off where I want to go: the main village of Alamut. Despite strong assertions from various taxi drivers and bystanders that there is categorically no bus to Qazvin (the nearest town en route to Tehran), an antique public minibus immediately appears. We putter at a glacial pace through the magnificent landscape, over the pass, and onto the plains, where I transfer to a less decrepit bus and secure swift passage to Tehran.
Tehran’s traffic situation is intimidating, to say the least—streets snarled with cars, drivers seemingly intent on mowing down pedestrians, antiquated vehicles spewing out exhaust. “Please don’t take the metro!” acquaintances from the laid-back northern city of Rasht had implored me, emphasizing the crowds and bustle of the capital. But after surviving the New York City subway at rush hour, almost any other form of urban transport is manageable, and Tehran’s metro is no exception. In fact, it’s a well-oiled machine, mercifully equipped with female-only cars that are often less packed than their unisex counterparts and eliminate the opportunity for the sort of casual sexual harassment common to public transport around the world. (Of course, segregated compartments don’t eliminate the root cause of the problem, but after my pickup encounter I relish the opportunity to relax.)
Tehran is unpredictable, complete with vertiginous wealth and crushing poverty; modern Iranian life in all its complexity. The country’s metropolitan melting pot draws people from all regions and all walks of life into its 12-million-strong vortex, spitting out a milieu that includes politically conscious, forward focused, liberal factions. Such rebellious tendencies can be read on the bodies of women, many of whom—especially in affluent northern suburbs—stretch the rules of hijab to the barely-there limit.
In the summer heat, women wear open-toed sandals and open manteau (a long coat designed to cover butt and groin, but in this case leaving the front untethered). Iran is considered the “nose job capital of the world,” with the highest rhinoplasty rate per capita, and white surgical bandages are worn draped over the bridge of the newly neatened nose as badges of affluence and taste. My host insists that the “cleavage protest” (a movement composed of women who leave home with cleavage visible) has begun, but it never materializes before me. Skinny jeans and leggings are everywhere, however, and gauzy headscarves are pushed so far back as to be essentially useless, exposing unnaturally colored tresses. There are female hipsters and goths and dafs (Farsi slang for “babe”), all working around the restrictions of the current regime to express their style.
Such forays into personal expression and fashion consciousness are not risk-free. Iran’s morality police trawl the streets of the capital, searching for women to chastise on account of “bad hijab.” One night, as my host and I descend from Darband—a park on the slopes of Mt. Torchal, and a popular spot for young people to socialize freely and smoke qalyan (as hookah is known locally)—we run into one: a chador-clad female officer cheerlessly surveying the crowds spilling out of the park. I nervously tug my hitched-up sleeves down to my wrists, and hurry on.
Most of my Couchsurfing hosts are men—students or young professionals or exasperated participants in Iran’s dispiriting youth unemployment statistics—and while public interaction between the sexes is strictly policed, in private, heterosexual relationships can be as complex and as open as in any other country (although “normal” interactions must overcome additional anxieties and restrictions). The ease of association depends on many things: family, social class, whether you live in a village or a city, and which city.
Rasht, for example, in northernmost Gilan province (a stopover, for me, between Tabriz and Alamut), is described by my Couchsurfing host as relaxed and socially liberal. One night we go to a barbecue on the Caspian Sea, in mixed company: there are six boys, myself, and one other girl, who is accompanying her boyfriend. She is vivacious and confident, her headscarf slipping daringly low. It is the first time I have seen such a relaxed public interaction between young men and women (as a foreigner, I exist somewhat outside this dynamic), and express my surprise at the girl’s inclusion in the evening to my host, Amir. He nods his head. “For us too it is strange,” he says, with a shrug. Later, Amir and a college friend of his will confess to me their frustration when it comes to dealing with women. “Iranian girls are so weird,” they tell me, in a tone of earnest bemusement.
Men relax in the shade under Esfahan’s Safavid-era Khaju bridge.
Certainly Iran’s relatively strict gender segregation makes it trickier for young men and women to form solid friendships or romantic attachments. Online dating (some of which is even state-sponsored, despite harsh prior pronouncements from the government) is slowly worming its way onto the Iranian social scene, and an increasing tendency to leave home for university has seemingly made the courting process easier. But most unmarried couples I meet, regardless of how serious their commitment to each other, have not yet spoken openly about their relationship to their parents. Essentially alien and undateable, I find my male hosts easy and enjoyable companions. But even as an outsider, my gender has been occasion for unease.
Weeks after my Tehran stint, I reach Yazd, an atmospheric desert city, and end up accompanying two German students (whom I had first met in the Iranian embassy of Trabzon, northern Turkey) to nearby Aqda—a dilapidated, astonishingly beautiful mud-brick village crumbling slowly back into the sand. Ensconced with a group of local friends the Germans had met previously, I find myself the only woman amidst a tribe of perhaps eight men. The boys are uncomfortable around me at first, but soon loosen up. Aqda people are good, says Hamed, a solemn man in his early twenties, but people elsewhere are less so. “Men look at you, and all they think about is sex,” he says. I almost laugh out loud at the idea—having worn the same baggy pants, long, faded floral tunic and unwieldy white headscarf for weeks now, with very few showers along the way, I’m fairly certain I’ve reached peak undesirableness—but swallow my mirth in the face of Hamed’s earnest concern.
From Yazd, I make my way to Shiraz, before stepping lightly off the beaten track. Having reached Bushehr, a sweltering, sleepy port on the Persian Gulf, my path curves northwards again, this time running through the remote Western highlands of Luristan and Kordestan.
Accommodation options are thin on the ground and my Couchsurfing discipline is flagging—scrolling through profiles and writing requests is time-consuming and sometimes impossible in a country where internet access is hardly a given—but my faith in Iranian hospitality (the inescapable mehman nawaz, or guest friendship) is never shaken. On arriving in Khorramabad, the capital of Luristan, I am rapidly scooped up by Sanaz, a girl my own age who intercepts me, out of nowhere, on the bus into town. Inviting someone in for tea or to stay the night is an accepted cultural practice in Iran, and I am soon sequestered in her modest home and embraced by her extended family. Later, I am served a typical Iranian feast, and lectured in extremely broken English on the finer details of Lurish music.
In Paveh, a Kurdish town that clings precipitously to a series of mountain ridges, a local again thwarts my search for formal accommodation; after I approach a nonplussed group of men for directions, a skinny figure peels off from the group and immediately offers up his house. I am less than eager to go home with him—after all, an Iranian woman would probably never wander back to the house of a strange man, and Couchsurfing, by contrast, offers some sense of security—but Paveh’s hotel situation is dire and this man is scrawny enough that I think I could take him if things took a turn for the worse. Plus, he assures me his sisters are in the house.
I end up spending the next few days living in a garden outside a remote mountain village, sleeping under the stars, seeking shade under pomegranates, and plucking figs from the trees. I meet a brilliant extended family, am fed glorious food, and gain insight into the Kurdish mountain culture and the thriving smuggling trade into nearby Iraq (the border is approximately 4 kilometers from the secluded balcony where we sleep, and private vehicles regularly ferry cheap Iranian fuel over the border).
Throughout my journey I see myself as a solo traveler, though in truth, solitary travel in Iran is a spurious notion. Iranians do not, as a rule, travel alone, and they will try to rescue you from your solitude. Large family groups often eat, sleep, and socialize in the same room, carpet-lounging en masse for much of the day. To be a woman voyaging solo through this world of close-knit families and jealously guarded reputations is to be an object of curiosity—especially since an Iranian woman’s right to travel is effectively controlled by her male guardian, and hotels, I am told by several young people, are apt to refuse lodging to single local women.
Regardless of social class, profession or attitude, all Iranian women are inherently affected by legal and socio-cultural limitations on their rights and freedoms. And, despite such strictures, most of the women I meet in Iran are intelligent, well educated, and highly opinionated. The practice of hijab, a beloved cause célèbre in Western countries, can be a private expression of faith and should not be assumed problematic—but when hijab is government-imposed and worn reluctantly, as it was by many of the women I met, it’s a powerful symbolic of broader gendered oppression.
“You are coming to Iran lonely?” people enquire of me constantly—aloneness and existential solitude being apparently one and the same. Iranians, straining in an isolated country, seem thrilled to see any foreigners at all—and are particularly intrigued and bemused by the sight of a young woman wandering free.“But why are you alone?” one elegant old man asks with concern as I slog in insane temperatures through the deserted midday streets of Shush. “I’m alone because I’m traveling by myself,” I say, adding, “And I like it.” The dapper silver-haired gentleman hurries off, equanimity disturbed. And I like it hangs defiantly in the air.
A father and sun watch the sun set over the Persian Gulf, in the port town of Bandar Bushehr.
For my part, I never set out to shock, or to contravene social norms for the sake of it. But to modify my behavior beyond the bounds of what was legally required, in order to adhere to the “women’s role” as narrowly understood by the ruling regime, would constitute a dip into cultural relativism that I was unwilling to make. Besides, merely by putting on a backpack and setting out alone I had committed what essentially amounts to a faux pas. The attention my minor feats of independence occasion starts to become perturbing, and then natural. I start to become conditioned to the limitations of being a woman in Iran, and eventually, I have to remind myself that such constructions are absurd.
Nevertheless, I’m a little disappointed when I saunter across the northern border into Armenia without disturbing a single soul. Everyone seems to be napping when, at 8 a.m., after a breakneck ride through the aridly beautiful Aras river valley, I arrive at the checkpoint. Halfway across the bridge to Armenia, I am hailed back by a confused official, and made to properly register my departure—the sleepy, silent guards unsurprised and unmoved by my passage.
It is only when I have reached the other side of the river, when I have paid for and received my visa, and when I have stepped out, into the bright morning sunshine of southern Armenia, that I truly feel I have left Iran. Tangling my scarf in my hurry to unwind it, I gaze, uncovered, towards the Iranian mountains on the far side of the river, wind ruffling my hair.
Kirsten O’Regan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Guernica, The Paris Review, BBC Travel, and Dissent. She is currently based nowhere in particular.
Photographs via Kirsten O’Regan.