In 2016 I was living in the Republic of Georgia and travelled to the Islamic Republic of Iran for two months solo. Where and why you may ask?
Two years prior I was travelling through Eastern Europe, and while in Ukraine, I met travellers heading to Iran. My ears perked up and I thought to myself, you can go to Iran? This was the seed that planted two years before and after reading and researching, I finally got to go to the incredible and misunderstood country.
There are many aspects that are misrepresented in the media and misunderstood through general lack of knowledge, not just of Iran but the whole region. I mean, how are we supposed to know all the history of ALL the world. But as International Women’s Day approaches on March 8, it reminded me particularly of this trip in Iran and I wanted to share with you my experiences and stories to remind all women to embrace the freedoms that were fought for them.
Wearing the Hijab
The hijab is the Persian word for a head dress that covers the hair and is mandatory in Iran. However, this wasn’t always the case, as previously Iranian women, like many in the region, were permitted to dress in anyway they liked. They had their hair out, they wore dresses that showed their ankles, they were permitted freely to attend school and walk down the streets with boys and men who they weren’t related to.That sounds a lot like the same rights I was raised with in my home country Australia and the same rights that women have here in Canada. However, that changed in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution when new rules and practices were instituted, particularly for women. But rules are slowly softening and changing back to previous eras.
When I first put on my hijab I was terrified of a single strand of hair showing, little did I know or understand modern Iran. Flying into Tehran, the capital city of Iran, I noticed girls barely had their hair covered, sleeves were rolled up and they wore multi coloured hijabs. Was this closed-off, oppressed Iran?
I spent two days in Tehran but went straight down south to the Persian gulf, discovering the more remote and less tourist-travelled parts of Iran. On the persian islands, I camped in a tent and when I awoke, I realised I wasn’t simply able to just go outside without covering my hair. It also probably wasn’t legal that I use nature as my outhouse. It was the first realisation that I had to be aware of my surroundings and that I had to change who I was and what I wore to comply with where I was.
I arrived to Kish Island, Iran’s version of Dubai, an unfamiliar setting of paved roads and manicured gardens to the remote desert and poorer islands I had just travelled. I couchsurfed with a married couple, he was a big couchsurfing host for the island. I was there with a Polish girl and then there were two European men travelling, all sleeping on the floor in the living room.
The wife of the couchsurfing host would wear her hijab at home, I thought this was normal. Until one day, it was just us three girls, she had her hijab off. Her husband came home and the hijab stayed off. When the European males returned home, she put her hijab on. Inside her home she was forced to wear her hijab as custom when not with male family members.
Imagine you can’t dress as you like in your own home.
A Clear Definition
When you take the public transportation system in Iran, it’s clear segregation of the sexes. Women’s carts are clearly marked on the underground metro system in tehran. The symbol of the hijab with Farsi and English words for women only. Segregated by glass and bars from the opposite sex.
One day I was taking a bus, normally when I travel I sit at the front and ask the driver to help me figure where I need to get off. The bus driver spoke little English, but I had directions written in Farsi to my couchsurfing host. He was polite and invited me to sit at the front seat. Next thing he asked a young boy to go and get me a drink as a gift. It was a hot day after all and I thanked him.
The bus started and the next stop a middle-aged man got on the bus, noticing my presence in the front seat, he started yelling and got off the bus. I asked the driver what was wrong and he said nothing.
As the bus continued I noted I definitely wasn’t supposed to be sat at the front, all the women at the back of the bus with men burning holes into the back of my head with their stares.
A few stops later an older man got on the bus and started to sit next to me, I thought, Oh no, he’s going to get in trouble being sat next to me. “Hello, where are you from?” I was shocked, his English was perfect and he was probably around 80-90 years old.
We had a conversation and he used to work for British Petroleum and had travelled all over the world. He talked about what Iran was like before the revolution and what it was like now. He said to ignore the silly men being offended by me sitting in the front seat, he said that women will one day have the same rights as men again… one day.
He got off the bus and off he went.
Imagine you can’t travel with your brother, your father, your husband or your son, once they reach a certain age.
Will you ever be your true potential?
In the centre of the country as I was hitchhiking from Shiraz to Estabhan to visit the non-existent Lake Bakhtegan (it dried up a couple of years ago and is now a salt desert – google maps isn’t up to date), I was picked up. “Where you go? Where you go?” Hearing English was often a luxury. Drawing pictures or doing off-hand sign language like pointing to my mouth for food or drink had become normal. I said I wanted to go to the lake to go camping.
His English was poor as he tried to tell me “no”. He gets on his phone, like many in Iran who don’t speak English, next I’m handed a phone. It’s his daughter. She speaks perfect English and instructs me to the status of the lake and that I MUST come stay with them.
We visit the salt desert lake and thankful to be picked up and not abandoned in a waterless, shadeless desert. We get to his house and I meet his daughter who is dressed in a traditional black burka. We visit their town of Neyriz, enjoying the sites and being shown off like a cute puppy to their friends and family to gawk at.
The evening arrived and it was dinner, I asked politely if I was able to take my hijab off, they said “of course, please! This is your home”. I come out, with my tattooed arms and more shock bestows their faces. I eat my food as the family stares at how I eat, as though it’s some strange custom and process.
I find out the daughter speaks good English, because she is an English language teacher, yet she had never spoken to a native English speaker in her life. She asked me to come to her school, where she taught English – an all girls school, as is most common to segregate the sexes.
I got to the school the next day, the girls all in black staring at me like a martian from outer space. She introduces me to the girls, they are so shy. Eventually they warm up as the teachers and I converse in English. Parents have gotten wind of a native English speaker at the school and they show up to take photos with their children and me. The girls then practice their English with me.
“So do you like English?” – I ask “I love English. It is my favourite. I study very hard” – she said “What do you want to do with your English?” “I want to travel to England and go to school there”.
I smile a little sad smile knowing she will probably never leave her hometown. She will marry most likely a first cousin which is common and have children and I will have been the only native English speaker she will ever speak with in her entire life.
Imagine your education is not intended to be used, ever.
I write these stories in memory of one of the most amazing places I have visited, with the friendliest and most generous people, incredible food and diverse landscapes for a single country on earth.
But as a woman, as I left and walked the border from Iran into Armenia, it was like stepping through a portal. Although the society is shifting more liberally as globalisation takes hold, particularly in the capital city, old strong deep fundamentals stay persistent in the communities.
I will never forget the women and girls I met on my trip and every time I think life is unfair or it’s too hard for me to handle, I remember that I was born and now reside in a privileged country where I was given an equal education, I was allowed to wear what I want, believe or not believe in religion, I was told I can be anything I want and encouraged to do that. It hasn’t been easy, but not every woman gets those basic human rights. I am lucky to be from a country that has allowed me to travel and explore the world, an advantage not given to many.
I celebrate International Women’s Day, realising that many women had to fight to give me the rights that I respect and appreciate. I remember that women in less fortunate circumstances, even here in Canada, still need help having basic rights.
In Tehran I got a tattoo on my forearm, which is illegal and and was given to me by an incredible artist who has had his work taken by the police in the past, but he still continues to do what he loves.
The tattoo on my arm reads:
آزاديت را در آغوش بكش
– Embrace your freedom.
Did you know
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 23 girls every minute. Nearly 1 every 2 seconds – www.girlsnotbrides.org
An estimated 130 million girls around the world are not in school, and those who are, struggle to remain in the classroom – where they belong – https://plancanada.ca/girls-education.