Lately always more often I’ve been reading and hearing the same recurrent question: is it safe for women to travel to Iran? Do women traveling in Iran run any danger?
Alongside the questions, I’ve been also reading and hearing conflicting opinions. On one side, I see articles by journalists who have visited the Islamic Republic and are very much concerned about the risks women run in Iran on a daily basis, and on the other side I hear and read the comments of the always increasing number of tourists, solo female travelers included, who have chosen the country as their holiday destination and left enchanted thanks to the local hospitality, beautiful landscape, stunning architecture and, wait for it, great safety.
This comes as no surprise since industrial media have long lost their appeal of bastion of free speech and always less prove to be the “mirror of society”. On a related note, travel magazines or newspapers’ travel sections are always more filled with what seems fancy advertising rather than actual travel features and articles, so no wonder why readers and travelers rely on travel and personal blogs always more frequently and regularly.
Only a couple of weeks ago in Italy, a big debate raged online after a young journalist visited Iran and came back to issue a bitter and very resentful tale of how she got groped, harassed, fondled and assaulted both physically and verbally everywhere she went by men who followed and chased her and her friend. While I’m in no way denying that it’s possible that in Iran there are men who enjoy some self-gratification time, I admit I have a hard time picturing random guys taking off their clothes for a show of their manhood at the entrance of mosques. I was, however, pleased to see the reactions of the thousands of Italians who have already visited Iran, women included, who felt very far from the journalist’s dark memories and strongly attacked her, making her feel “assaulted twice, once in Iran and once online when back in Italy”. Sort of.
As for me, after including safety among the reasons why you should visit Iran now, I found it particularly bizarre the bit where she declared that with her friend they decided not to address the police for help “in order to avoid further problems”. Which problems, exactly? Personally, I felt safe in all my night bus and train trips because of the police and security personnel presence.
As if this wasn’t enough, just in a time when Iran tourism industry is thriving, here arrives The Guardian with an article written by a non-specified correspondent on women safety (or the lack of) in Iran, where the author makes a case for vulnerability because, in a nutshell, women wear the headscarf and follow the principles of Islamic dress laws (hijab) that include pieces such as a manteau, medium-length jacket, or a chador, full-length open garment, for those who want to wear it. What’s worrisome about this article, published in a newspaper that I thought preferred smarter theories and arguments, is that it implies that the cause of sexual harassment lies on how a woman is dressed, disturbingly reminding me of a debate that took place in Italy years ago after a girl wearing tight jeans was victim of a rape, and where some people claimed that the girl had somehow provoked the rapist by dressing too seductive.
While I thought those people were sort of coming out of a cave, it saddens me to read something along these lines in The Guardian. In the West, women are victims of sexual harassment because we dress too scantily, in the East because they are too much dressed, in India why? They don’t wear hijab nor dress too scantily. It might be the case for the industrial media that pride themselves on being clever and interesting to address the issue under a more clever and interesting perspective, such as that there’s probably something wrong in the society and how the same media represent women, rather than blaming it on clothes of whatever nature and model.
Going back to where it all started, now that Iran travel industry has been greatly flourishing with an always increasing number of (happy) European tourists, the anti-Iran media machine seems to have stepped on a whole new level and started tackling one of those issues that were never really an issue: safety.
Much to my dismay, I come from a country, Italy, that doesn’t really have the best reputation when it comes to verbal street harassment. Only last week a friend of mine from the Czech Republic was visiting Rome and asked me pretty surprised why Italian men never miss the occasion to catcall you. I won’t even start mentioning how many times this has happened to me, along with shows and approaches of all types, even if I’m Italian (just a tip here: if it ever happens to you in Italy, don’t do like the Italian journalist in Iran, do tell the police if you see any around).
My personal experience of traveling in Iran as a woman when I went to Iran was actually very smooth in this sense. Maybe I couldn’t understand the comments as I don’t speak Persian? Could be. Obviously, my friend and I weren’t the only women hanging around by ourselves, we met plenty of local and foreign women travelling around Iran solo or as part of a group, female travellers from China, India, Singapore, Italy, France and many other countries.
Probably our most colorful moments were in Tabriz where my friend warned about the typical local “staring culture”, although I knew something about it as I had already been to India. As a matter of fact, in Tabriz we got stared at a lot, at the Grand Bazaar, on the streets, at the park, we received plenty of those mischievous looks revealing of sure interest. No organ showing though, nor people chasing us on a motorbike, otherwise we would have told the police. Obviously.
So, women travelling in Iran, is it a good idea?
Along the way, from north to south, day and night, we met many women travelling in Iran, young and less young, certainly all very chatty and quite inquisitive, in a proper Iranian-style, travelling for work, holiday, family reunion and the most different reasons. It was pretty clear from their confidence that it wasn’t really the first time they were travelling alone from a province to another on public transport at night, and it was certainly good to see I wasn’t bringing any kind of novelty in their life.
Often I get asked if I have male friends in Iran and how they are with me, whether they have ever shown any sign of disrespect or have belittled me just because I’m a woman. Since I hardly get the same questions for the other countries I visit, I can only assume there still is much-distorted information and much to learn about the Islamic Republic. This is also probably why I never tire of suggesting everyone to travel to Iran and see by themselves. Of course, I have Iranian male friends, we meet for lunch, dinner, coffee (tea, actually), at the park, or to take a tour. They’ve never shown any sign of disrespect, they were never out-of-line and now that I’m thinking about it, nobody has ever even asked me out!
As I see it, it’s time for corporate media to give Iran a break and admit it’s a great holiday destination.
Is Iran safe for women travellers? Yes, for both men and women, and if you are still wondering whether to book your ticket or no, here are 18 things you should know before going to Iran!