‘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?
Recommend further Iran reading
Costs of backpacking in Iran
The best hostels of Iran, a personal selection
Please let me know if you have any questions! You can leave a comment or send an email to bunchofbackpackers[at]gmail[dot]com
I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I think it’s important to point out these kinds of dangers, and I appreciated your tips for ways to minimize the risk. I spent a couple of months travelling on a motorcycle in Iran in the seventies, with fond memories of the experience. The generosity and friendliness of Iranians remains prominent, and I’m pleased to see this is still a feature of a traveller’s experience. Thank you for the post.
Great post! Although I will not be visiting the Middle East any time soon
I’ve just been to Iran one week ago, and I have to admit, during my 2,5 weeks in Iran there were indeed some guys who were hand stroking my bottom.. Also some men were following me as well when I was walking back to my hostel at night.. Stay cool, and don’t respond too heavily..
However, I really enjoyed Iran, but for some women it is perhaps more convenient not to travel alone there :)
I was wondering what you’d have said if you were beautiful. there are tonnes of gorgeous girls in Iran. I have to admit harrasment is a problem which is the direct result of gender segregation.
Don’t shake hands with men you don’t know, instead put your hand on your chest as a sign of respect and dress appropriate
It’s the law in Iran to dress appropriately (or what they consider appropriately!) so there’s no way these harrassments happened because she or I didn’t dress the right way!
The information you shared in this blog is really interesting.
It is always refreshing to read something positive about a destination or people, and I’m thankful that you have busted the myth and misconceptions about traveling to Iran. I loved how you had a great experience, definitely an experience for a solo traveler like me!
I’ve never been to Iran but I am very happy to read your post and learn from your experience. Would you recommend a solo travel to there?
Glad that you had a good time in my home country, and sorry to hear about your unpleasant exprience. I just wanted to point out that the targets of these types of harrassments are not just foreigners, and many local women have had similar expriences, including myself.
Also, I did not find your post offensive or anything but informative and very close to reality.
A lot of great tips! I’m going there in a month solo, so glad to read about what I can expect.
Hey. I kinda had a similar experience during my 2 weeks in Iran and many solo female travellers told me similar stories. Whenever i was with a guy nobody cared, nobody even looked at me. It was very weird for me to hear local guys ask the guy i was traveling with, if they could take a picture of me. I was standing right next to them. Don’t expect men to shake your hand. Be grateful if they acknowledge you.
My minor incidents: in the bazaar in Teheran one guy touched my butt. He disappeared so quickly i couldn’t react. In Yazd (Towers of Silence) there was a bathroom building for women and one for men. I was the only one in the bathroom when a local man came in. He just stared at me. I was shocked. Didn’t know how to react. He talked to me in the local language. I told him to go away. He didn’t go to the toilet, just started to wash his hands at sink next to me. Afterwards he talked to me again. I told him to go away. Fortunately he left. I don’t know what he wanted. He could have locked the door if he wanted to, nobody would have heard me.
The third i was by myself again. Walking around the main road in Shiraz at like 8am. Suddenly i realised that one guy was following me. I started to walk towards my hostel which was in a sidestreet. He followed me almost all the way until another foreign woman showed up. He then started talking to her and even shook hands with her. I was too shocked and afraid, so i just ran to my hostel.
So if you want to have a great time in Iran, join a couple or a male backpacker. It’s definitelx better!!!!
Hey, this is a great article before reading your blog I have a misconception about this country but after reading so many good things about this place it seems like this is an interesting place to explore and we should dress appropriately. Thanks for sharing this information with us!!
I am sadaf from Iran.I read your text about Iran.Iran has a good and bad people like every where in the world.
But I know travel alone is a bit difficulte,but you can be friend with local people to have a safe travel.
Thank you for sharing your experiences. anywhere all around the world, you can find different people, good or bad. the thing is to be realistic, this kind of experience can happen for anyone all around the world and Iran is not exceptional too. have fun and keep travel.