Have a chat with Intrepid leader Nadia Badiee and you’ll likely realise how little you know about Iran. And, for that matter, the Iranian people.
The Iranian tour leader is one of the warmest, friendliest people around. After talking on Skype for under an hour she tells me I’m “very nice”, that she gets “positive energy” from me, that I should “please, please come to Iran” and that if I do, she will bring me to her home. Impossibly glamorous and brimming with enthusiasm for her country, the 28-year-old, in quite the unlikely way, sums up this misunderstood nation.
After all, the way the country is often portrayed by the media and its reality have little in common. Outsiders can get the impression that Westerners aren’t welcome here, that the people are aloof and unfriendly. In fact, the exact opposite is true – most are eager for tourism to blossom – something that’s unsurprising when you consider how much there is to offer visitors: mountains, beaches, desert, the richest culture, the warmest hospitality, and more.
Another common misconception about Iran? Iranian women themselves. A quick chat with some colleagues in my office in Toronto confirmed to me the impression many have of females in this nation: reserved, repressed, not able to work, consigned to the traditional ‘housewife’ role.
Intrepid’s team of (mostly female!) Iranian leaders is a direct contradiction to that. Nadia, who not only has a degree in in Genetic Science, but abandoned a scholarship at Vienna University to pursue her passion of tour guiding, is not an anomaly in society. She’s representative of it. A large percentage of Iranian women are fully integrated into the workforce: young, modern, independent and highly educated.
After chatting, Nadia and I connect on Instagram (how else would two social media-obsessed twenty-somethings stay in touch?). She’d said to me, “Wearing colour does not scare me. I love fashion; I love colourful dresses and scarves.” I see this was no flippant remark; her feed is more fashionable than many Insta-famous influencers I follow in the West. But it’s when she tells me that she loves yoga and politics and trying out restaurants in her spare time, I find we have far more in common than one would initially think.
If she dispelled this many misconceptions in just one hour, I thought to myself, how much good could she do in a week or two?
One of the highest-scoring guides in Iran and an Intrepid leader for over four years, Nadia is an inspiration. An intriguing one at that; I couldn’t stop asking what it’s like working in this industry as a female. She answers that when she first started, there were few tourists in the country and that friends and family didn’t take her career aspirations seriously. “They thought I was just doing it for fun,” she explains. “But I trusted myself and worked as hard as possible. I had to prove myself to my family first, and then to agencies, and then to managers of hotels who always ask, ‘What do your family think?’”.
So, what do they think? Nadia is from a self-described “fairly liberal, middle class family” but she admits they’d much rather she had a job with security. “They’d rather I had an office or teaching job. They’re always afraid that I’m on the road; they think I should settle down.” But she’s determined to focus on her work. And it’s the travellers on her Intrepid tours who inspire this focus. “Travellers are very positive about my gender. They say ‘it’s really good that you can work in your country.’ They assume it’s really conservative and so they are happy to see women working. They give me the motivation to work harder.”
The travellers she hosts when leading tours also inspired her to explore other countries for herself. “The first thing I learned from visitors to Iran was to see the world. People who come to Iran are very wise and knowledgeable – they’ve all been to 30 or 40 or 50 countries.” When she started out she never would have imagined travelling alone to other countries, but leading tours has changed her, she tells me. “I was inspired by a young Australian who worked for three years in a bar to travel for a year – with a backpack and no plans! I realised if they can do that, I can do that. Every day I change and become better.”
Nadia, genuine and passionate in equal measures, tells me that travellers who visit make her want to try her best because they view her as an ambassador for her country. “My job is to answer questions,” she says. “I spend 14 days with my groups and it’s my responsibility to show the best version of myself and my country.”
And what better way is there of being an ambassador than by showing off Iran’s highlights to visitors? Her love for her country and job is evident, especially when talking about the vegetarian café in Tehran she takes her “favourite people” to, and the parks she shows travellers where locals hang out in the evenings. We then focus on Shiraz, Nadia’s hometown and a destination she sells so effectively I’m temporarily transported to paradise. “It’s called the city of poets and gardens. There are lots of nice Persian gardens and restaurants with live music that are open until 1am or 2am. People are laid-back and if you go in Spring, you can smell the orange blossom everywhere!”
Aside from tours of Iran’s ‘usual’ tourist sites (Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan), she also leads tours of Northern Iran – a remote and scarcely-visited region of natural beauty. And she’s one of various female leaders in Iran who inspired Intrepid’s new range of Women’s Expeditions.
Gender segregation is not typically Iranian, so why the need for female-only, female-led trips there? Because as modern as many Iranian women like Nadia are, strict dress codes imposed by Islamic Law have meant many places and experiences have become segregated by default. So, meaningful local interactions can be hard to come by on a normal trip.
On this 12-day adventure, however, they’re plentiful.
You can bake bread with the Qashqai people in a rural homestay. Picnic in one of Iran’s women’s-only parks. Learn about female scarves from a shop owner in Tehran. Eat dinner in a local home to get insight into Iranian life. Visit Iranian beauty salons. Travel in female-only metro carriages. Try a women’s-only yoga class, enjoy a bakery visit, venture to all manners of mosques and temples. And, phew, even more…
You’ll visit for the Iranian sites – and stay for the Iranian warmth.
How am I so sure? Because of Nadia herself. As she says, “If I want to describe Iran in one word I always say ‘people’ – the people in Iran really like tourists and helping them have a nice time.”
And how am I so sure you’ll want to see the country through her perspective? Because she’ll show you just how little you know about gender roles and society there. I ask Nadia about her future, whether she sees getting married and looking after kids in it. She replies that she’d like to own a business, that she’s not the type of person who’s looking to settle down.
“If it happens, it happens. It would be my choice. I’m happy working and travelling.”
Discover Iran with her and you’ll realise we, as humans, have far more similarities than we have differences.
Visit Iran with one of Intrepid’s inspirational female leaders on Intrepid’s NEW Women’s Expeditions.