Females planning a trip to Iran should consider four questions: What should I wear? How should I behave? Will I be safe? What should I take? This information aims to give practical advice, dispel preconceptions and reassure.
Since the revolution of 1979 all women in Iran, including foreigners, have been required by law to wear loose-fitting clothes to disguise their figures. They must also cover their hair. This form of dressing is known as hejab, a term that refers in general to ‘modest’ dress, and is also used to refer specifically to the hair-covering.
Signs in public places show officially acceptable versions of hejab: the chador (literally ‘tent’ in Farsi), an all-encompassing, head-to-toe black garment held closed with hand or teeth; or a manteau (shapeless coat or coat dress) and a rusari (scarf) covering the hair, neck and décolletage. Girls must start to wear hejab when they reach puberty, but many start from a much earlier age (we’ve seen plenty of babies and toddlers sporting Islamic head coverings).
In reality the dress code is more relaxed and open to interpretation. It’s not unusual to see young women in the larger cities wearing figure-hugging manteaus (often tightly belted trench-coats), skinny jeans, high heels and colourful rusaris that have been arranged to offer plentiful glimpses of hair and neck. But in the smaller cities, towns and villages this rarely happens – the chador is common and those who don’t wear it are clad in an ensemble of shapeless coat, black pants, sensible shoes and a maqna’e (nun-like head scarf, or wimple). Colour schemes are uniformly dull.
Iranian women who flout hejab can find themselves in serious trouble. Their infringements have included wearing sunglasses above the headscarf, failing to wear a coat that fully covered their bottom, wearing bright colours, wearing nail polish, wearing sandals that show the feet or ankles, and not fully covering their hair.
Fortunately, foreign women are not usually judged as harshly as Iranian women when it comes to hejab, and few Iranians will bat an eyelid if you have your fringe or a bit of neck or hair showing. It pays to look at what women around you are wearing; for example, you’ll want to dress more conservatively in Qom than you would in Tehran.
The biggest challenge that you’ll encounter is keeping your scarf on. Silk scarves aren’t much use, as they tend to slip off; the only way to make them work is to tie them under the chin babushka-style. Wool can work, but not if it’s too fine and slippery. Your best bet is textured cotton, which tends to adhere to hair more effectively and slips less. Make sure that your scarf is wide enough to cover all of your hair, and long enough to be able to throw over your shoulders as an anchoring device. Practice before you leave home.
Some travellers wear a thick elasticised headband and fasten their scarves to it with safety or bobby pins, ensuring that their scarf doesn’t slip – this can work well with silk and fine cotton, so is worth considering if you are travelling here over summer and want to wear something light. Bring the band with you.
At the time of writing, local fashionistas in Tehran were wearing their scarves as high and as far back on their heads as possible. This is relatively easy to do if you have long hair (the scarf is draped over a high ponytail or bun, which anchors it), but it’s impossible for those with shorter hairstyles.
The majority of manteaus are made from polyester (ghastly in summer) or cheap cotton. The trench-coat style is the most popular version for fashion-conscious Iranian women, but it can be hot and uncomfortable – remember that your manteau will need to stay on in restaurants, cinemas, shops and other interior public spaces.
Loose-fitting cardigans going down to the mid-thigh are a comfortable, alternative form of outerwear. These can be worn over T-shirts or jumpers (sweaters) but bring them from home – they’re hard to source in Iran. In summer, you’ll need to wear something light – long peasant blouses and tunics made with natural fibres work well, as do shalwar kameez, a long shirt or tunic worn over baggy pants. If you’re coming overland from India you’ll have plenty of opportunities to purchase these along your journey.
All manteaus are worn over trousers; jeans are perfectly acceptable. Do not wear skirts.
The only times when foreign women must wear a chador are when visiting important shrines. In these instances, the chadors can almost always be borrowed on-site.
Half-truths and stereotypes about women exist on both sides of the cultural divide: some Westerners assume that all Iranian women are black-cloaked, repressed victims, while some Iranians, influenced by foreign movies and media, see Western women as ‘easy’ and immoral. When in Iran, be aware that sex before marriage is uncommon (well, that’s the official line) and that there may be some males who – influenced by the aforementioned stereotype – will try it on with you, particularly if you are travelling solo. The best way to prevent this happening is to be polite but not overly friendly in your dealings with local males. If you need advice or directions, approach women first. Younger ones are more likely to speak English.
Most Iranian women only travel with their fathers, brothers and husbands, so Western women travelling by themselves or with male friends may be considered as being of dubious moral standing. Be aware of this and be careful not to break the following local conventions:
Violence against foreign women is almost unheard of in Iran, even if the odd grope in a savari isn’t (consider yourself warned). You rarely hear about instances of sexual assault, although this has happened – if travelling solo it may be safer to use female guides, steer clear of teahouses and avoid budget hotels where Iranian or migrant workers stay (eg mosaferkhanehs). Some cities – Yazd is one example – have 'Women Taxis', with female drivers and for female customers only.
If you use tampons, take enough to last your whole trip. They’re expensive and very hard to find. Sanitary pads are widely available. It’s also handy to take some plastic bags for carrying out your toilet paper, tampons and pads from toilets that don’t have rubbish bins.