“Do you have to wear a burka?”
“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?