Many Iranian Women go about their daily business covered from head to toe in black chadors, (a full-length sheet like cloak) held tightly under the chin with one hand, only their faces visible. In less conservative areas, women (usually often the younger women) wear tight leggings, a manteau (longish top reaching just below the bottom) and a colourful headscarf.
But what is life really like for women in Iran? When I was there recently, I spoke to many women (albeit briefly). Here are stories from some of the Iranian women I met.
As a woman it is easy to interact with other women in Iran. A smile and friendly face quickly opens up conversation. That’s what happened in Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan where locals gather to picnic and relax. They set up rugs on the grass, open baskets of food and thermoses of tea and enjoy the beautiful surroundings and pleasant company.
Our group ate falafel rolls while sitting on a low stone wall enjoying the scene. Noticing a family group nearby, I smiled at one of the women. She hesitantly approached me and welcomed me to Iran. Conversation flowed.
Zaina asked me numerous questions, questions I would be asked repeatedly throughout my time in Iran: “Do you like Iran?”; “What do you think of the chador?”; “What did you think of Iran before you came?” and “What do you think of Iran now?”
Zaina had been studying English for many years, but this was the first time she had the confidence to practice her English. Hopefully our conversation will increase her confidence for further interactions.
Iranians have little contact with the outside world and welcome those from other countries who come to see Iran for themselves. All the people I met were keen to meet people from other countries and eager to distance themselves from their government. More than once, I observed locals welcoming Americans wholeheartedly, making a distinction between the American people and the US government.
The Coffee Shop
Four women sat in a coffee shop, one covered with a chador, the others wearing dark hijabs and manteaux. They were happy for me to take their photo, and asked me to join them. One asked me why I wanted to take their photo. As she suspected one reason was their dress, another that they were women socialising in a café.
They explained that they worked for the government, and their dress was a uniform. They took out their phones and showed me photos of themselves outside of work, wearing in brightly coloured outfits and scarfs. And just like women the world over, they enjoyed socialising together over a cup of coffee. In conversation, the youngest expressed the wish to leave Iran. A dream I would hear more than once.
Western misconceptions had me believing that Iranian women were sheltered and not often seen out and about. I soon realised how ill-informed I was. Women in Iran socialise in public all the time. They shop in the markets, eat out in restaurants and coffee shops.
The Bridge in Esfahan
But unmarried women seldom socialise in public with unmarried men.
Walking through the arches of an old stone bridge in Esfahan, well-known as a meeting place, I came across a group of architectural students. They were playing charades, the men sitting under one arch, the women under another. One of the young women asked where I came from. At my reply, she joked “take me home in your suitcase”.
The game continued with much animation. Then things turned nasty. Two soldiers in their army greens marched up, remonstrated with the group and instructed them to disperse. One of the male students protested loudly, but he and the group stood up and moved on. The student later told me bitterly that “We can’t have fun”, “It’s against the religion” and “We can’t date”.
Casual Meetings in Kashan
Looking for a bookshop where we’d been told we would find an English book, we wandered the streets of Kashan late one evening. Even though it was dark, the streets were busy as the next day was the weekend. Six young female students walked along in front of us chatting animatedly enjoying their night out. They stopped briefly to talk.
Language students, they were shopping for clothes and goods for their dormitory. Having practiced their limited English by asking about my family and wanting to see photographs of my grandson, they excused themselves and moved on.
Wandering through the town the next morning, we discovered a group of women climbing up the crumbling old city wall. Dressed less conservatively in jeans and bright colours, they were a family group on holiday from Tehran. Surprisingly, they were with a male guide. I followed them up the wall, taking advantage of the hand offered to me. They removed their scarfs before posing for a series of photos.
The Tehran Metro
When catching the metro in Tehran, I was faced with a choice. To separate from my husband and travel in the busy women only carriage, or to squeeze into a non-segregated carriage where the men were packed in like a can of sardines. I chose the former, for comfort sake. On the next leg of the journey, a young couple with a baby entered the non-segregated carriage. I followed suit, wedging myself into a corner with my husband.
In Iran the women are well educated. Many attend university. Once they graduate from university many give up their profession to have a family. Nadia didn’t. She studied restoration and architecture. Coming from a wealthy Tehran family, her father set her up to restore, renovate and run a guest house in one of the tourist cities.
When we arrived at the guesthouse, Nadia and a young man were waiting for us. The next night we took Nadia for dinner. Over a pleasant typical Iranian meal, she tearfully shared her story.
The young man we had met the day before is her boyfriend. With nothing to his name, he works long hours in hospitality. Nadia had hoped that they would get married and run her guesthouse together. Besides being in love with him, she needed help and support with the guesthouse.
She arranged an introduction between her parents and her boyfriend. As far as I could understand, the meeting was in effect for the young man to ask her father for Nadia’s hand in marriage. The answer was a definite “No.”
Today, Nadia’s neighbours think that her boyfriend is her husband. She continues to see him, knowing that if word got out, she could be in trouble not only with her family but also with the authorities.
Like people the world over, Iranian women (and men) have dreams. However, the restrictions placed on them means that many have little hope of realising those dreams. Many Iranians want to travel, but the cost of travel is beyond them, and even if they can afford to travel, some are prevented by their government from leaving the country.
Daya works in tourism. While she has “had a boyfriend” her view on marriage saddened me. She told me that “if I get married, I will be expected to have children. If I have a child, there is a 50% chance that it will be a girl” adding “and I don’t want to bring a girl up in Iran”.
This sentiment was echoed when I met an Iranian couple in Sydney recently. Able to travel and obviously well off, they have travelled widely. They hope to immigrate to Australia, the woman saying “for my daughter” (who is five).
More than once in Iran, I saw a little girl wearing a chador over her day clothes. The explanation I was given is that this dress code is not forced on young girls. Apparently, little girls often begged to have a chador so that they could “dress like their mother”. All young girls seemed to wear a hijab (often white) to school as part of their uniform.
Women do drive in Iran, but are discouraged from riding bicycles and motorcycles (unless as a passenger). I certainly saw women cycling in Iran, but not many.
My thoughts on Women in Iran
For a visitor to Iran, the beauty of the country is obvious, the friendliness of the people is extraordinary, but that is just the surface. The undercurrent of oppression is there.
*Names and places have been changed just in case.