If you’re thinking about visiting Iran, you’re probably wondering whether it is easy to get a visa, whether the locals are friendly toward tourists and whether it is safe to travel there. The answers are yes, yes and yes! But come on; let’s talk about something you mightn’t have read already!
Iran, a Country of Strong Women
When I was planning my first trip to Iran, my friends and family were worried about how I would be treated as a young woman. People claimed I would be denied entry into restaurants, teahouses, and museums nor would I be able to go hiking or do any kind of physical activity, all because of my gender! Luckily, I ignored these deluded warnings and ventured into Iran.
Of course, none of these alleged restrictions came to pass. Female tourists and the local ladies can enjoy activities alongside the guys. Apart from wearing the compulsory hijab, I behaved as I would in any country. Unlike some other countries in the region, Iranian women have the right to own property, vote, drive, attend university and get divorced! Iranian women are professors, surgeons, hold high-powered positions in companies and are often the primary breadwinners of their family. In fact, in some northern provinces, the women are the farmers and shepherds, leaving their husbands at home.
Are Iranians Xenophobes?
Because Iran is an Islamic state, people assume Iranians are xenophobic. This could not be further from the truth. Not only will tourists be welcomed with open arms, Iranians are also very welcoming and accepting toward ethnic and religious minorities living amongst them. As far as religion goes, most of the population is Islamic however about 2% are Christian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Jewish and you see places of worship for these minorities across the country. There is a smattering of ethnic groups too with Persians (61%), Azeri, (16%), Kurds (10%), Lur (6%), Baloch (2%), Arabs (2%), Turkmen and Turkic tribes (2%). Most people in regional areas will speak Farsi as a second language, their first language is a completely distinct, local tongue.
Iran has a history of welcoming migrants and has been praised by the UN for its efforts in resettling refugees from neighbouring war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran hosts one of the largest refugee populations worldwide, with approximately 3 million Afghans living in the country. Historically, Iran provided a safe haven for Armenians in the wake of their national genocide in the early 20th century. Nowadays Armenians are a well-loved ethnic group in Iran. If you’re in Isfahan check out Jolfa, the Armenian quarter of the city.
Choose Your Surroundings
Picture Iran. What do you see, a desert landscape with a camel on the horizon? Undoubtedly, you will see a lot of desert on your travels through central Iran but this is not all. Iran has almost every landscape imaginable! To the North, you will find mountainous oak forests and cascading waterfalls leveling out into rice paddies and then onto the Caspian Sea. To the South, you can find mangrove forests, coral reef islands, and lively beachside fishing villages. In the winter, the world-class ski resorts just outside of Tehran swarm with avid skiers and snowboarders. In the summer, these same mountains become a playground for hikers and campers.
Islam, Only Skin Deep
For an Islamic country, there are very few practicing Muslims here. The statistics show that less than 2% of the population attend weekly Friday prayers. During the call to prayer at noon and dusk, I was surprised to observe what appeared to be business as usual with people largely ignoring the music being blasted from every mosque across the country. Naturally, Ramadhan is practiced in Iran, however finding food and drinks during fasting hours will be no problem as supermarkets, fruit shops and some fast food places are open. And in fact, even Muslim travellers are discouraged from fasting during Ramadhan so roadside restaurants will be serving their usual menu!
In 2014 I traveled to Cuba, which at that time was heavily sanctioned by the USA. During my trip, I lost my razor, so naturally, I went to buy a new one. After scouring many supermarkets and pharmacies, I still could not find a razor. Two months later, a very hairy-legged version of myself wept before a wall of razors in Duane Reade in New York City.
Upon traveling to Iran, I knew about international trade restrictions so I was prepared for a similar shortage of commodities. But I was a fool! Iranians are full-on consumers and you can buy almost anything, at any time, in Iran. There are local and imported options for everything from quinoa to soymilk and treadmills to espresso machines!
Although much of the local TV and print media is government-affiliated, Iranians are in touch with the global world. Most Iranians have satellite TV screening hundreds of international channels and a smartphone with a VPN. Internet data is cheap here; you can pick up a prepaid sim card and a few GB of data for under $10 USD.
Thriving Art Scene
Iran has a rich artistic history, which continues into the modern era. Of course, some censors on public art do exist; however, this does not stop Iranians from expressing themselves through art. Beautiful street art in the form of murals and mosaics colour the cities. The architecturally divine Museum of Contemporary Art in Laleh Park in downtown Tehran has an outstanding collection of local and international artists. Check out Tehran’s up and coming craftsmen and artisans at Homa Art Gallery, the Iranian Artists Forum or the Friday Bazaar at Parvaneh Mall.
Iranian films have also gained international renown. In recent years Iranian writer and director Asghar Farhadi has won Academy Awards for his films A Separation and The Salesman. Film festivals such as FAJR and the Tehran International Short Film Festival feature in many a Tehrani’s calender.
No matter what you do or where you go, a trip to Iran is sure to blow your mind. All the images you’ve seen in the media will fade away and a new, vibrant Iran will come to life!