There’s a giddy buzz in our van as we wind through the backstreets of a trendy neighbourhood Shiraz, Iran. Our driver – the only male in our cosy little collection of eight travellers – pulls up to the curb next to a non-descript shopfront flanked by a garish canvas curtain. “This is it?” someone asks.
Nadia, our local leader and a self-admitted beauty queen, doesn’t answer but pushes aside the curtain and leads us down some stairs into a brightly lit room.
At first, it’s a bit disorientating. The air is thick with hairspray and nail lacquer fumes, and Farsi pop pounds from the stereo. Above a leather couch a Persian model surveys her kingdom from a gilded frame. Women of all ages mill about the room reading magazines, wielding brushes and waiting for their hair to set. I experience a pang of weird faded panic as I’m hauled back to the night of my Year 11 formal, until I realise I’m next in line and the receptionist is asking me what I want. Cut? Blow-wave? Pedicure?
After I’ve paid my rials (Iran is largely still a cash economy) the penny drops on the other reason I feel strange: the receptionist – and every other woman in here – has her head uncovered. Of course Nadia has worded us up and we knew we’d be able to remove our headscarves once inside, as there’d be no men here. But after nearly two weeks of only seeing women in hijab – and indeed having to wear one ourselves when in public – it feels odd to take it off. We exchange sheepish looks and head forth into the beauty salon.
This experience is part of Intrepid’s Women’s Only Iran Expedition, a 12-day adventure that’s taken us through Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd, the Fars Province and now to beautiful Shiraz. The trip is part of a range of expeditions specially designed to give female travellers access to local experiences and places off limits to men.
In modern Iran, particularly among city-dwelling middle classes, visiting a beauty salon can be an important part of a woman’s week. It’s a social occasion, an opportunity to gather and catch up on the latest news or celebrity gossip (Nadia says Iranians are obsessed with Kardashians) like people might do at a hamam in Turkey, a market in Peru or a pub in Australia. Indeed, the salon is abuzz with conversation: low-key chats are exchanged between the nail desks, while across the room others laugh and shout over the hairdryers.
Back home I never get my nails done and I put off going to the hairdresser until the situation is dire; in short, I’m not a beauty salon person (unlike Nadia, who’s already flung herself into a chair and is ready to go). But I already feel the excitement and safe intimacy of this experience bringing our group – consisting of women of varying ages from all over the world – even closer together. I’ve felt that the whole trip, actually, as we shopped for scarves in small co-ops, as we rolled kofta at a cooking school run by two young women in Tehran, and as we laughed, learned and listened to Nadia, time and time again, patiently and passionately describe the nuances, complexities and realities of life for different women across Iran.
But back to the salon. By now I’m getting my nails painted green by Paris, a spunky young lass with short-cropped hair and sparse English. Shyly, she hands me an iPad and I’m surprised to find it open to a Pinterest picture of a topless woman, a tattoo curling over her shoulders and down her back. Paris motions for me to swipe; I choose a small floral henna design for my inner wrist and watch her work adeptly before she waves me over to a chair to have my hair blow-waved in the style of a sassy 70s newsreader.
Beauty salons aren’t just beneficial for creating community among local (and visiting) patrons. Since the revolution, opening a beauty salon – often in a basement or extra room in the house – was a common way for women to gain financial independence. They’ve become a booming business in Iran which, as Nadia points out numerous times throughout the trip, has quite a preoccupation with beauty.
“We are one of the nose job capitals!”
Indeed, Iran has one of the highest rates of rhinoplasty in the world. Young people are obsessed with Kylie Jenner. Instagram and Pinterest, while restricted by the government, are very popular. The women, particularly in the bigger cities, are some of the most impeccably and stylishly dressed people I’ve ever seen (if you’re a fan of fashion, bring some extra cash and treat yourself to a silk scarf or swing coat). And it’s not just the women; men seem to be just as fastidious about their appearance, often travelling from nearby nations to benefit from Iran’s thriving beard transplant trade.
Later, when the eight of us are gathered around again waiting for the last in our group to finish her blow wave, I ask Nadia why women spend so much on getting their hair done when it will just be covered by a hijab. She rolls her eyes, understandably – and finally – impatient. “Maybe for their husbands in the home. Maybe for when they are among friends, other women. But I think for many people, it’s just for themselves. To feel special no matter who can see.”
Discover the beauty of Iran and experience its culture from the female perspective on Intrepid’s 12-day women’s expedition around Iran.
All images by Pippa Whishaw.