‘What were your experiences as a solo female backpacker in Iran?’ This question I got quite a few times after my trip to Iran last summer. If you have been following my travels on Instagram or Facebook, you know I truly had the time of my life. In Iran I felt 100% free, careless and happy. I sang and danced in cars, ran through flower fields and was invited to so many homes. It was indeed mostly thanks to its warm, welcoming and beautiful people, that Iran was one of the highlights of my entire trip.
Let’s start to state the following important things:
- Iran is an incredibly safe travel destination.
- If you ask: should I go? I will always answer YES!
Solo female backpacking in Iran – Personal experience
However, there have been some minor incidents in Iran, which I can’t ignore. So, time for a few ins and outs on my personal experience. I spent 23 days in Iran and traveled both to the ‘standard tourist destinations’ and more off-the-beaten path rural places. I traveled solo, independently and got around using a mix of public transportation and a bit of hitchhiking (always together with another traveler). Unfortunately, in those 23 days, I had a few minor incidents such as a taxi driver who was touching himself (Eeeeuwww), a hand stroking my bottom in a busy street (Accidentally? I don’t think so…) and a mosque employee touching my cheek (this may seem like no big deal, but remember that a male touching an unknown female in her face is unusual in Iran). I also got a few romantic date requests and even men following me on their motorcycles. It goes without saying that I was dressed according to the local standards and sticked as much as I could to local customs.
I also heard stories from other solo female travelers. For example, one German lady was sexually harassed while hitchhiking and the driver initially refused to let her out of the car, one Swiss girl was harassed while solo hiking and another Chinese girl was groped during rush hour in the subway. Alex Reynold wrote a lengthy account in an Australian newspaper of her harassment experiences in Iran. Maybe you will say: I went to Iran by myself and I did not experience anything like this! Well, obviously I’m glad you didn’t! However, these were my experiences and I felt it wouldn’t be honest to say I had a complete incident-free trip.
What about other countries? Why an article about Iran?
So, what about the other countries I visited and what about other travels? As you probably know, I’m quite well-traveled. And, except for the ‘accidentally-bumping-into-you-but-precisely-against-your-breast-or-bottom’ incidents in India, I never had much issues during my travels. I did not experience any harassment in Southern Africa. During my Silk Road trip, I had one incident in eastern Turkey and another one in Kyrgyzstan, but in Iran it was more prominent. That why I decided to write this article specifically for Iran.
What does it mean?
‘OMG this all sounds scary!’ Well, for me, although sometimes incredibly annoying, these things weren’t a big deal. The only thing that did leave a bit of a lasting impression was the taxi driver incident. Still, I never felt in danger.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to ask Iranians if it is just the foreigners who are targeted. Or is it also a problem among local women? Personally I felt it is specifically aimed towards female foreigners. A reason for this might be that some Iranian men simply have wrong expectations and think of us, like Alex Reynolds suggested, as sex-crazed party animals.
Still, although this may sound controversial, I do consider Iran as a safe country to travel to. Like I previously said, it’s one of my favorite countries on this trip!!
Safety tips for future solo female backpackers to Iran!
So, what to do. First: GO to Iran! Here are simple tips and tricks, which can help you to avoid any trouble for solo backpacking in Iran:
– Always sit in the back in taxi’s
– Don’t shake hands with men you don’t know, instead put your hand on your chest as a sign of respect.
– Dress appropriate
– Avoid walking at night in empty, dark streets
– Hitchhiking and hiking alone carry in my opinion the greatest risk. I wouldn’t say ‘don’t do it’ (as I’ve done it myself and had good experiences), but keep this in mind.
– Stick to the local customs
– Sit in the women’s part in the metro, train and bus (especially during rush hour)
– Stay close to the local women! They will take care of you!
Hang out with the ladies
Definitely hang out with the ladies! I probably had most fun with all the Iranian women I met during my trip. It’s very easy to make contact, and most of them will actually approach you. They are quick to laugh. Well-educated, strong and independent. Talk to them and learn about the Iranian society, and how they feel about it.
Bring at least two headscarves. I preferred light, soft scarves. You don’t need a pin, but you can just wrap the scarf around your head. I promise, you will quickly get used to it. I even felt elegant with it! In Iran, you will soon notice that some youngsters don’t like the headscarf and take it off whenever they can. Especially in Tehran, you will find that some women wear the headscarf in a fashionably low way, which actually shows most of their hair. For others, it’s still an important part of their religion and they wear the scarf in a more traditional manner.
What about the Iranian morality police?
I haven’t seen or met them, but I heard they are still around. They are women dressed in normal clothing, keeping check on the dresscode. Supposedly, they won’t give tourists a hard time (unless you maybe walk around in a miniskirt). Often a local will point out any dress code violations. One time the top button of my shirt was undone at the backside, and an Iranian girl approached me to fasten it. Sometimes it would happen that my scarf would slide down to my shoulders, without me noticing it, but there would always be a friendly person on the street to point me to this.
Also, some other general female Iran backpacking tips:
– In terms of clothing: it’s better to be on the safe side. I usually wore either a baggy trouser and a wide shirt (long sleeves, no deep V) that covered the bottom or a long dress and a legging/jeans. And of course, a headscarf! Sandals are supposedly ok, although I didn’t see many.
– Try to respect the dresscode even if you’re in your hotel (e.g. the courtyard). In someone’s home or in the mountains, you can be more liberal with regard to the dresscode.
– If needed, bring tampons (they are supposedly difficult to get in Iran)
I’m Iranian, why are you offending my country?
I have no intend to offend Iran or Iranians of course. Although Iran was the country where I experienced most sexual harassment, it was also the country where I made most new (local) friends. However, I feel it is my responsibility to share my experiences. Both the good and the-not-so-good ones. I trust you understand. However, the not-so-good-experiences did not keep me from loving Iran anyway :)
‘Solo female travel’ – about the terminology
I often get compliments about being brave for traveling solo as a woman to Sudan or Iran. My male travel friends do not get this type of compliment. ‘Solo female travel’ has become a popular term for bloggers and journalists these days, who write articles ‘inspiring women all over the world to find the courage to travel the world’ or ‘top destinations for female solo travelers’. Personally, I never liked the term ‘female solo travel’. Why emphasize gender? Why emphasize stereotypes? Why do we need more courage or special female destinations? Anyway, as you obviously can see,I used the term ‘solo female travel’ in this article. However, in my case I will only use this term to talk about practical differences: e.g. risk of sexual harassment, a slightly different packing list and the odd looks you might get in male-dominated cultures. But basically, that’s it. My fellow travel blogger Sabina wrote an excellent article about this topic expressing my exact thoughts! Anyway, some extra food for thought ;)!
Are you Iranian? How do you feel about this topic?
If you have been to Iran, what were your experiences?
Please let me know if you have any questions! You can leave a comment or send an email to bunchofbackpackers[at]gmail[dot]com