Before: at the gate of the airport in Istanbul, waiting to board the plane that will take us to Tehran, women surrounding us are dressed in tight clothes that show their gym shaped bodies and décolletés, no veil. After: the plane touches Tehran's soil, and what you see is a synchronized movement of women putting their veil over their heads, changed into large shirts that cover arms and butts. The two different lives will be the refrain of your trip: welcome to Iran.
"Welcome to Iran" is what we heard the most: people literally stop you in the middle of the street curious to know where you're from, and end with this refrain. Once, a bread seller who was trying to sell us bread ten times its price, suddenly stopped the bargaining and asked us: "Where are you from?". And then: "Welcome to Iran". Still we haven't figured out if he was intentionally ironic.
But that is actually what you feel as soon as you jump in the first taxi from the airport: welcomed. From the people, on top of everything else. And from the beauty of the mosques and the Shahs' palaces that you'll visit during your trip.
Unfortunately, though, we early discovered that not everyone's equally welcomed: women. We both have travelled a lot, mostly backpacking, and one of us has also been in various Middle Eastern countries. But what we had to experience in Iran has shocked the both of us and deeply influenced the mood of our holiday. This is why we decided to share our experience of two women traveling in Iran by themselves - and Lonely Planet is very deficient on this point, plus on the web you won't find much - so that you know what could happen to you and consciously decide to go or not. Or better: how to avoid very negative experiences.
Touching your butts
Bazars are very crowded, so it's heaven for butt touching lovers. The man starts walking behind you, and suddenly grasps your butt and quickly leaves in the middle of the crowd.
Men following you
At a bazar in Tehran a man started following us. After twenty minutes, we decided to leave and stepped into the metro station. He followed us even there and became explicit about wanting to go to bed with one of us. At first we said no several times, then tried to ignore him. None of them worked. We arrived at the turnstiles, but those didn't stop him either: he jumped over and was ready to follow us onto the train. At that point the only way to block him was calling security, and that's what we did.
Men showing you their penus
We were in the biggest mosque of Iran, in Esfahan. A guy working there said hi to us and asked where we were from. Stop. Having finished visiting the mosque, we decided to sit at the entrance to eat some fruit. The same guy passed in front of us, then came back and while passing in front of us - et voilà - he had his penus out of his trousers. Unbelievable -- women harassed in a mosque by the guy working there.
Physical aggression - this is the worst thing that happened to us
We just arrived in Kashan, and wanted to visit some historical houses. It was a Friday, Iran's day off, and nobody was around. A guy with a moped started following us: at every crossroads he was there, staring at us. We turned into a narrower street directed to the house. The guy with the moped accelerated and overtook us, then he turned somewhere. We couldn't find the house and started to feel uncomfortable, so decided to go back to the big street. Suddenly he appeared at our backs and while accelerating with his moped he grabbed one of our butts. He then stopped in front of us, blocking our exit to the main road, and started masturbating himself. The one who had been touched was frozen to the spot in horror, the other one started cursing in Italian advancing toward him, but still he didn't stop. So tried a more international: "help! help! help!". At this point he left.
Because of these episodes, we didn't feel safe for all our journey. Nevertheless we decided not to go to the police, because we didn't want to have a possible new problem to deal with. But what we did was to tell all Iranians who asked us about our impressions of the country what happened to us. And we were very disappointed by the reaction of most of the people: "But it happens also in Rome or Naples, right?". "No!" we stiffly answered. Finally, in a city that had very narrow roads that meant possible dangers for us, we decided to visit with a tour guide, and we explicitly asked for a woman. While visiting, we started telling her what happened to us and asking her if we were doing something wrong, or maybe it had something to do with us being foreigners. At first she tried not to answer and changed the subject. But as we insisted, she did answer. And we had our hearts full of pain. She told us that when she was in high school someone tried to rape her. It was early in the morning, and an old man who had a shop in those narrow roads trapped her. He took his pants off, but luckily a man arrived and saved her. Her dad couldn't do anything other than sell their house and buy a new one in a neighborhood where streets were wider. She said it's normal for a woman to be touched or followed by men, and maybe it happened many times to us because one of us looked like an Iranian. And there is not much she can do, except for having a pepper spray in her bag, avoiding narrow streets and staying at home when nobody is around, even if it's during the day. She also had many problems while with tourists. Once, she was with an all women group sitting in front of a historical site. Suddenly a group of young men with mopeds started to drive in circles around them, then threw the guide on the floor and the worst thing would have happened if a man hadn't appeared attracted by all that noise. And she told us that also little kids are not immune from harassment. We were shocked, but finally found someone who didn't try to avoid or minimize facts, but instead shared with us harsh and intimate suffering. And were surprised when two male Chinese tourists told us that they too had been touched on their butts - by men. Too bad for former President Ahmadinejad, who said that homosexuality doesn't exist in Iran.
Much has to be done in Iran. And not only because the Islamic Republic wants to skyrocket its 3 million tourists par year to 20 million in ten years. But first and for most for Iranian women. Those living in big cities like Tehran or Shiraz stretch the Islamic rules by pushing their veil as far back as possible, covering their faces with a ton of makeup and kitsch plastic surgery (Iran has seven times more plastic surgery operations than the US) and hang around with men even if they're not their relative or husband. But most of those in villages still have to live a backward and constrained life. As soon as we arrived in accommodation in a local house near the desert, we were surprised to hear from the owner the following sentence: "If you are a lesbian couple don't worry, I couldn't care less, you can push the beds together". It's not the kind of thing you would expect to hear in a country where homosexuals can be condemned to death penalty! And he also added that we could take off our veils in the house. Well, we thought, even if in the middle of nowhere, they've been living with tourists from all over the world for many years, so they must have become openminded - yeah, until we had dinner with them. We were wondering why their fourteen year old daughter wasn't eating with us. She can't be hungry, we thought. Instead, while we were cleaning up, we saw her in the kitchen, eating by herself behind the door, with her veil on. There were two male tourists with us, so she had to eat in a separate room. In their parents' mind they were probably preserving her for a future marriage, in a country where men and women cannot even lightly touch. But to us it looked like segregation.
It was very liberating to take off our veils as soon as we put a foot on the plane that would have taken us home. It's not just about covering your head, but it's that constant feeling of valuing something less and being vulnerable to savage instincts that is suffocating. And first and foremost, the awareness that for you it was just a two weeks holiday, but for millions of women it's their existence. We'll never forget a young woman we met. She was sitting in front of a mosque in Kashan dressed in a chador that didn't cover her smiley face, studying for her driving license exam. She was waiting for some tourists to talk to. She was eighteen years old and with her fluent English she started asking us many direct questions, from what we thought about Islam to our acceptance of wearing the veil. She was really into geopolitics too. "What would you like to study at university?", we asked her. "Political science. But my parents won't let me, so I'll have to study psychology". We took a selfie together and left. We then started wondering what such a brilliant and curious woman could be making of her life. If only she could have been free. If only she could have had the right to be herself.
Giulia Innocenzi and Maddalena Oliva, two Italian journalists on holiday in Iran
|Former American Embassy, now called Den of Espionage, with its self-explanatory murales.|
|Bazar in Tehran in an empty afternoon.|
|Walking in Kashan.|
|Kashan's bazar - 1|
|Kashan's bazar - 2|
|Kashan's bazar - 3|
Walking in the desert between Esfahan and Yazd.
|But never forget your selfie stick.|
|This taxi driver was very fond of his English car.|
|Bursting relief on the airplane back home: free from our headscarves!|