The truth about Solo female travel in Iran
After my visit to Iran one of the most frequent questions I got is whether it was safe for me to travel as a woman alone. My short answer would be yes and i would recommend Iran to anyone considering it.
Iran is one of the safest countries in the Middle east and Iranians are among the friendliest people I have met in my travel history
However, that said I wished there were some things I knew before as a solo female traveller in Iran. The internet seems to go from the extreme positive, claiming there are no problems at all, to the extreme negative, thinking any women must be mad for even thinking about it.
Neither advice is very useful if you plan your trip as a solo female traveller to Iran. This post is based on my own experiences of travelling alone as a women. I travelled for one month throughout the country including some off the beaten path destinations using public transport.
Solo female travel in Iran is a great experience, but it requires some homework before you go. The following advice for women will prepare you for your trip, whether you travel alone, with friends or with your partner.
1. What to wear
What is the hijab?
Iran is one of the few countries in the world where the hijab is mandatory. Hijab basically means to adhere to the Islamic dress code and in practice there is quite some flexibility in the interpretation of what this entails.
Iranian law stipulates that women should cover their hair, legs and arms. I personally haven’t seen the morality police, but I heard they are still around.
At the one hand, they will not give tourists a hard time, but on the other hand it is better to be on the safe side, especially if it comes to prevent sexual harrasment that I will discuss later.
Locals will often help you and approach you in a friendly way if your dress code is not what it should be, for example if your headscarf is not covering your chest enough.
What is a chador?
So what do women in Iran wear? Here are some useful terms. The chador is an Iranian invention and consists of a black full body length fabric tossed over the women’s head that only leaves the face open. This is not mandatory in Iran.
At certain shrines and mosques you must wear them, but then they are provided as a lot of Iranian women themselves do not use them on a daily basis.
Wearing a chador requires some practice and it looks easier than it is. Luckily, they will forgive you as a tourist for your clumsy fight with all the fabric and gravity pulling it down.
What is the niqab?
The niqab is the Arabian dress that consists of a black cloak leaving only the eyes open. This is extremely rare in Iran.
In fact, most women in Iran are very creative with the enforced dress code and continuosly look for the boundaries of what is allowed.
The hijab in practice
The young women know how to dress well and look surprisingly sexy. The mandatory manteau, a jacket that falls to the knees and covers your butt has become a true fashion accesoire, just like the head scarves that are draped to reveal as much hair as is allowed. Jeans or leggings can be as tight as possible. Layers of make-up applied to perfection provide the finishing touch.
And then, under all this, you’d expect some fancy high heel sandals, but no, what you will find are a pair of sporty sneakers. Honestly, this aspect of Iranian fashion remained a mystery to me.
Anyways, I felt pretty underdressed in my oversized backpackers clothes that i brought with me. Except for my comfy sneakers maybe. So now some tips for you as a women travelling to Iran
Dress code for solo female travellers in Iran
1. Buy one shawl that you can use as a headscarf in a colour that can fit with most of your clothes. Iran is a great place to buy them.
My suggestion is to bring one for when you arrive and do some shopping along the way. The headscarf can and should also be used to cover part of your chest.
2. Long sleeves and long pants are the way to go. It doesn’t need to be baggy as long as it does not reveal too much of your bottom.
Your upper dress should preferably come all the way to your knees so tunics are perfect to bring along. You can also buy a manteau when you are in Iran.
3. Opt for darker colours. Bright colours are still rare and limited to the more liberal cities. However, it doesn’t need to be all black either.
2. Solo female travel in Iran is rare
Most women in Iran rarely go out on their own, let alone travel to foreign countries. Preferably they go with their husbands, fathers or brothers, but at least with friends or family. For iranians going together is just much more fun. Iranian’s favourite pasttime is going for a picknick with the entire family. The more the merrier.
People will be curious why you are travelling alone. Iranians are polite, but they find it strange and they might pity you. This poor girl, all alone, no family, no friends. In the worst case people might be suspicious and think there must be something wrong.
This can result in families adopting you or people judging your behavior and approaching you with a mix of curiosity and condescension.
One of the first Farsi words I learned was tanha (alone), because people kept repeating it to me in complete surprise.
Whatever people will think of you they always remain friendly and helpful and have good intentions. Don’t be surprised if they invite you to one of the picknick parties you come across.
3. Sexual harrasment in Iran
It is likely that during your trip you will be faced with sexual harassment at some point. Most men in Iran will treat you with respect, but some see the lone white female as an opportunity.
The fact that women in Iran rarely travel alone combined with the stereotype perpetuated by the media that Western woman are more loose motivates some men to give it at least a try.
Luckily I never had an outright negative experience, except for some indecent proposals that were quite direct and easily rejected.
One guy on the street asked me if I wanted to sleep with him that night. I told him no to which he replied. Ok, no problem, welcome to Iran anyways, have a good time in my country.
Unfortunately I read stories of other solo female travellers that had more troublesome experiences. My advice are some guidelines that I actually follow in most countries when i travel alone as a woman.
Tips to prevent sexual harassment
1. Try to avoid walking alone at night. I always make sure that I am back in my hostel once it is dark, unless I am with other people that I can trust or I am absolutely sure it is a safe neighbourhood where there would still be other people out and about as well.
This includes planning your travels in a way that you don’t arrive in a new place after dark. If you do happen to find yourself arriving somewhere at night try to group with other travellers or ask locals to help you get a taxi.
2. Don’t accept invitations of single men. Iran’s hospitality is central to Iranian culture in the concept of taarouf. You will get constant invitations to people’s homes and you will even find people refusing your payment for their services.
Part of taarouf is also that is is unpolite to immediately accept all these offers. Most taxi drivers do expect you to pay eventually, but the overload of hospitality is more tricky. For a foreigner it is hard to distinguish between the genuine invitation or politeness.
No matter how friendly, be on your guard when a single men invites you to his home. This is not appropriate in Iranian culture and your acceptation might confirm his thoughts that western woman are in for more.
3. Do not go with a man alone to secluded areas. They might want to show you their shop or guide you to show you something special. It is better to stay around other people and politely decline.
4. Stay friendly, but keep a distance in your interaction with man. Being too friendly can be misinterpreted and can result in uncomfortable situations. Rather than giving a handshake for example, it is better to place your hand over your heart.
Also don’t be offended if a man does not shake your hand. It is in fact, a sign of respect in Iranian culture and he might greet you as well by placing his hand over his heart.
5. Use your instinct. If it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. If you don’t like a situation then be polite, but firm. Let the person know that his attention is unwanted and the situation makes you uncomfortable.
6. Ask for help, preferably from other women. If you feel a man is following you or keeps harassing you, don’t hesitate to ask for help from people around you. Often this will scare the person away.
4. Iran’s gender segregation in public
Gender segregation still dominates public life in Iran, but don’t be fooled by the seemingly conservative behaviour in public.
Iranians are experts in bending the rules and doing what they want while appearing to follow them. Iranian’s inventiveness and creative solutions to the restrictions put upon them kept surprising me.
Iran’s public gender segregation comes along with a complex set of unwritten rules that are hard to decipher as a foreign women travelling in Iran. Here are some that I figured out
The complex rules on gender segregation
1. In city buses the back is for women, but you need to pay in the front. You can get in the back and give the money to one of the men that will pay for you or enter in the front to pay and then climb under the barrier to the women’s section.
In practice I saw some women just walk to the back of the mens section and stand or sit near the barrier, especially when the womens section was more crowded.
2. In long distance buses men and women that are unrelated to each other can not sit next to each other. As buses fill up the puzzle gets more complex and results in a lot of shuffling around, untill the last seat is left. This can only be filled by someone of the same gender. At the next stop the game begins again.
3. The metro has its own women carriages. This is the place where women also sell female products from sexy lingerie to sanitary pads, which kind of makes me wonder what they sell in the men’s carriages.
4. Tea houses are mostly reserved for men. Solo female travellers entering them are frowned upon. This is a pity as they also serve some of the best dizi.
Luckily, some of the more luxury tea houses in the more touristic places like Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd also serve to families and are women friendly. If you see only men in a restaurant or cafe, better to look further for a place with families.
5. Mosques and shrines have a women’s entrance where they will give you a chador to wear. Often these are white with a flower pattern and you need to give them back when you leave.
5. In shared taxi’s, called savari’s all these rules dont seem to apply and women and men that have never met before almost sit on top of each other in an effort to put as much people as possible inside.
5. The biggest danger in Iran is crossing the road
As a solo female traveller in Iran it might surprise you to hear that the morality police or sexual harassment is in fact not the biggest danger you will face, neither is terrorism or islamic fundamentalists.
Iran has the highest number of road accidents in the world. The scariest thing I have done in Iran was crossing the road in Tehran and other big cities. The endless ongoing stream of cars look like an impossible hurdle.
Again, people are friendly. Look out for others trying to cross the road and they will help you out for sure.
6. Solo female travel in Iran is rewarding
Let me end with the positive note that backpacking Iran as a solo female traveller was a memorable experience. Like I said before, use your instinct, and that works the other way around as well.
Not all men in Iran are sexual predators. If something feels good and trustworthy it might as well be.
Do take up some of the invitations if they are genuine and they come from families or young couples. Which brings me to my last advice. Bring some pictures from your family to show to people. They will be curious about it and it will give you something to keep the conversation going.
Also bring some small gifts from your homecountry, like key chains or postcards, to hand out to those that help you along the way or invite you into their homes.
The men below gave me one of the best cookies I ever had in my life. Maybe the biggest danger in travelling alone to Iran is gaining weight from all the food that people will share with you. And Persian food is delicious. Read more about Iran’s cuisine in my Persian food guide.
7. Iran should be on your bucketlist
The food, the people, the beautiful architecture, the mountains. Do you need more reasons to travel to Iran? Read some of my posts on Iran’s beautiful cities such as Esfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Tabriz and Qazvin. If you love nature you can check my posts on Masouleh, Alamut valley or Iran’s Kurdistan.
And if your still not convinced yet that Iran is safe for solo female travellers, read some other experiences of women that travelled alone to Iran at Heart my backpack, Probe Around the Globe & Kami and the rest of the world.
The books of Bruni Prasske are also a good read for solo female travellers that plan to go to Iran.
8. Packing list for solo female travel in Iran
- A shawl to be used as a headscarf
- Tunics with long sleeves and long pants
- Travel guide to Iran
- Persian phrasebook
- Pictures of your family and country
- Small gifts from your country (for example, keychains or postcards)
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.