The image of the headscarf is one of the most pervasive of women in Iran. On the plane from Dubai to Tehran, the thickest and longest scarf I own is about to get an unseasonable turn as my main fashion accessory for a week.
As the plane begins its descent, and the seat belts click into place, so to do the women reaching to fashion their scarves. I am conscious of my ankles, of any stray blonde bangs, of muting my look to appear less like a westerner.
I shouldn’t have worried. It feels like we are all in on it together, and that is a sense of camaraderie that does not dissipate throughout the week in Iran. It helps that we are welcomed by our Intrepid leader Nadia, who offers insight to travelling in a country that does not have the best reputation when it comes to women’s rights. The more women we meet on this journey, the more express what we all know to be universal: the government does not dictate who they are, and the only way you can know this is by travelling and hearing their stories.
The first experience of commonality is when we travel by train in Tehran. Intrepid trips utilise public transport so as to minimise their footprint when travelling, and have real experiences with locals. I was banking on your run of the mill train experience, but what we found in the women-only carriage was fairly extraordinary.
Sure, you squeeze on, like most underground networks in the world. But the reason there is less room in the aisles is because entrepreneurial hawkers are sporting their wares. The handrails are adorned with all manner of items to buy. Including lingerie. Imagine bras and tiny lacy smalls dangling from the carriage ceiling and obstructing the view of women who are dressed in head to toe black, with only their faces exposed. It’s quite the contrast and gives an indication that appearance is not always as it seems in Iran. What seems to be conservatism rubs up against liberalism.
And if I had any concern about wearing colour or makeup, that is immediately dismissed by the women seen on the train and by our Intrepid leader Nadia, who sports a bright red lip to match her bright red manicure.
At a mosque outside Tehran, we wear a shroud out of respect to the religious site and enter. Within the walls, young women sit against walls snapchatting on their smartphones, talking to friends and applying makeup, while other women lay folded over themselves, praying on the carpet. It’s a private space that feels like whatever the local women want it to be. A lady approaches, covered from head to toe, staring at me. As it’s my first day and my first Iranian mosque visit, I wonder if I have mis-stepped protocol. She speaks in Farsi to our leader, who translates.
“She is so happy that you have made the effort to learn about her country and her religion,” my leader Nadia says, as the local lady strokes my cheek.
The experience of at once feeling so alien only to be so welcomed so kindly is a joy experienced again and again in Iran. The women all look out for one another. It happens again as I exit the female-only mosque, where it has just begun to snow. Despite this, a woman with a baby comes over to offer us sweets, with no agenda, that you would find in so many other countries. It is one of the most generous and organic travel exchanges, is repeated over the next seven days.
As a woman travelling in Iran with other women, you can gain access to privileged and private spaces. The beauty salon, for instance. Our leader Nadia finds a salon in Shiraz that feels more like an underground club. Heavy curtains herald the entry from the street, and down the stairs we can hear some sort of Persian trance music. Once in the sanctum, the scarves come off. The local women having their nails and hair done all sit with their immaculate makeup and liberated hair.
One of the benefits of the headscarf, of course, is that you need not style or wash your hair. It’s the ultimate in low maintenance travel. Until, that is, you learn the intricacies of scarf styling which can be just as elaborate as a French roll. Nadia shows us how to put our best scarf forward, twisting and turning it in a way that would be impossible to replicate but looks good enough to have us threatening to sleep in the style.
If you want to experience sisterhood, go to the place where it feels like it could be the most unlikely.
All images by Damien Raggatt.