Monday, October 18, 2010

From Hejab to a Handshake

“Do you have to wear a burka?”

This is the number one question people ask me when I tell them I travel regularly to Iran. It’s a question I never have a ready answer for, because the most honest reply is “yes and no”.

“No” because burkas are worn in Afghanistan, not Iran. Traditional Persian women wear chadors, like the two ladies in the photo. And “yes” because I know that the real question is this: do you have to cover yourself like a Muslim woman? The precise form of hejab, a woman’s proper Islamic attire, is irrelevant. I do have to wear a loose-fitting tunic and scarf under current Iranian law.

The follow-up question, often unspoken but apparent from the wariness in the speaker’s eyes is: but how do you feel wearing such a symbol of female oppression? The answer to this one is easy: it doesn’t bother me a bit. Mainly because I don’t see hejab as an oppressive symbol, but rather as an expression of religious devotion. But also, when I travel, I follow one primary rule: check your cultural attitudes at the door. Open your heart and mind to a new way of thinking, of being. For me, that is the whole point of travel.

Knowing what to wear on the street in Iran is the easy part. More difficult is navigating the many unfamiliar customs. This is complicated by the fact that Iranian hospitality makes everyone seem so open and friendly, it’s easy to forget that there are any social rules to be broken.

And yet I have broken a few—such as the time on my first visit to the country when my husband stopped a group of men on the street to ask for directions. At the end of the conversation, there were handshakes all around. Unthinking, I stuck out my hand as well. The men stared at me in alarm, and no one reached out to shake it. I realized I’d made a faux pas, and later I learned that Muslim men do not touch women they are not related to.

Like many rules in Iran, this one is routinely broken. Despite the lack of physical contact between genders, Iran is not a fully segregated society. Bus seating is organized by gender, with women sitting at the back, while savaris—the shared taxis that ply regular routes along Iranian city streets—are co-ed. Men and women share cramped quarters, practically sitting in each other’s laps. Where Islamic custom and convenience collide, convenience wins much of the time.

I’ve learned that the best strategy is to wait and observe. Not all men are averse to a handshake with a woman, and most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell who they are. A man whose beard and collarless tunic identify him as a conservative Muslim will certainly observe the gender separation rules. But a young guy with a gold ring in one ear and hair long enough to brush his shoulders probably isn’t going to think twice about it. For everyone else, I wait and let the man make the first move. If he sticks out his hand, I shake it. If not, a simple nod in greeting will do.

What about you? Do you have strategy for navigating unfamiliar customs? What mistakes have you made?


  1. This is a blog after my own heart (do you need an additional contributor?)! I have traveled and live abroad extensively, to Asia, South America, Africa, and Europe. (I haven't yet gotten to India or China, but I'm not dead, yet.)

    Most recently, last March, I traveled in Morocco with my (60-something) boyfriend, to visit my son on a college semester there, and to see the country. I wore longish skirts, sleeves below my elbows, and I always carried a scarf. It's a Muslim country, but the unwritten rules for women's outer attire seemed flexible - some wore headscarf, some wore jellabah robes, some both, some headscarf with heels and tight jeans, some jellabah and no scarf, and so on. But when I tried out a loose t-shirt one day, I went right back and changed - it felt too exposed. And when I saw several young women tourists in short sleeveless sundresses and flip-flops, I was embarrassed on their behalf.

    Even as a much younger and more rebellious traveler, I tried to respect local customs as far as I could. I lived and worked in Japan for two years in my mid-20s, and while my short frame fit the furniture, I violated female norms by actually walking around with my head up. I just didn't see any way around it.

  2. Oh, I've made plenty of mistakes even though I made the effort to educate myself on the customs of the place I'm traveling to. Luckily most times the locals laughed it off. Probably the hardest for me to adapt to was covering myself head to toe in 50C weather (122F). But I did it and I am sure the fact I observed local customs helped me get a little closer to the people. After all, isn't one of the main reasons for traveling is to meet new people and learn about other cultures?

  3. Glad you found us, Edith (that is you, isn't it? Edith from Guppies?). We're not looking for another regular contributor at the moment, but I hope you will drop by often and share your experiences. We love getting conversations going.

    Morocco was the first Muslim country I visited. I loved it. Friendly people, spicy food and fascinating bazaars. I remember kids running alongside the train and selling oranges through the windows when we pulled into the station.

    Alli, where did you cover up from head to to in 50 degree weather? I can relate to that! When I went to Iran in the summer, I thought I was living in a steam bath for the whole month! I bought a breezy, poncho-style manteau (tunic) to get some air circulation. Didn't help a whole lot. And it was too casual to wear in some places. That was another cultural learning curve: where you could get away with hejab lite and where you had to dress more conservatively.

  4. It was in United Arab Emirates. I believe it was even hotter than 50C degrees at times but I had trouble reading the thermometer because sweat was running into my eyes!

  5. Great post! A huge part of traveling is about learning other cultures. It is such an enriching experience. When I was traveling alone in East Africa a few years ago, on my last night there, I checked myself into a hotel run by fellow Indians in Nairobi. Hungry after a long safari ride, I ventured to the corner restaurant to get some roti (which by the way beats the Indian roti any day). It turned out I was the ONLY female in that place. All the men started at me, and I am sure they must have thought I was waay out of line for traveling without a man by my side. The fact that I looked like a local with my dark skin, ethnic clothing, and braided hair (at the time) didn't help. Granted it was risky of me to go out at night alone, but that's what adventurers are made of, right? :) Of course, I wouldn't have done so if I didn't feel safe. The men I encountered through out my whole trip, who were mostly Muslim, didn't dare even make inappropriate conversation. They treated me with utmost respect and often times looked out for me. That evening, I did go leave with a belly full of yummy food. :)

  6. Alli, I can picture that! Were you in full abaya? I didn't have to cover that much, unless I was in a place (like a shrine) where a chador was mandatory. Man, it takes skill to wear one of those!

    Lavanya, learning about cultures is the whole point of travel for me. I like to visit museums for the history and art of a place, but it's the way the locals live that fascinates me the most. You've had some wonderful adventures in your travels.

  7. No, it wasn't full abaya, I wouldn't have the skill to wear one! It was just clever placing of the right clothes and scarves to make sure I didn't offend anyone.

  8. Yes, that's me, Edith Guppy Maxwell! I usually remember to put my actual name at the end of a comment. I will definitely stop by.

    When I lived in Mali and Burkina Faso for a year each and it was 120 degrees midday, I realized the local custom of wearing a loose cotton boubou (khaftan) was perfect - it shades you, lets any breeze traverse, and you never have that sticky-leg problem of sitting down wearing short skirts or shorts (which are absolute no-nos there).


  9. Heidi, I couldn’t agree with you more on the point of checking your cultural attitudes at the door; this is very much my motto too. People are free to live the way they see comfortable, and if you come to visit, you must respect them. Mistakes I made? A few – starting from trying to shake hands to taking pictures of people (a no-no) to venturing into downtown Amman not only without a proper long-sleeved shirt to cover my bare arms, but without a bra underneath... It was close to 120 degrees that day, my first day in Jordan :)

  10. Lina, I can see we've made some of the same mistakes in the Middle East - the shaking men's hands at least. I've never left the house without hejab, though I'm still working on the skill of keeping the scarf from falling off constantly. Iranians don't seem to mind me taking their pictures, except at certain times, like Ramadan. Usually I ask if it's okay, because I'm never sure.

  11. Great post Heidi. One of the dress issues here in Italy is the requirement that women must cover their upper arms before entering churches. Many years ago, a priest stopped me and berated me for trying to enter with bare arms. My dress fell well below my knees, but it was sleeveless. Today many female tourists are confused by this rule. Italian women may show lots of cleavage and wear tight mini-skirts, but their arms are covered before entering a church. At St. Peter's there are signs showing, in several languages, what appropriate attire is, and there are guards to send away those who do not comply. I solve the problem by carrying a light scarf to drape around my shoulders.

  12. I had no idea about that cultural detail in Italy, Patricia. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing it.