Out of all the questions I got asked about my trip to Iran – mostly by my mum – was this: Is it really safe to travel there?
Iran has a bad reputation. While many seasoned travellers could tell you that it’s safe to visit, for many others Iran is still a suspicious place – mostly because they don’t know much about it.
I travelled to Iran in the summer of 2019 alone. While this post will have a focus on solo female travel – because let’s face it, how many times are men actually googling whether it’s safe to do something or not -, it will be useful for anyone planning a trip to Iran!
First of all: Is Iran safe in general?
The short answer is: yes, Iran is safe to travel to.
According to the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you should “exercise normal precaution” which is the lowest threat level they recognise and that falls under the same category as countries like Norway, Canada and France.
Crime against tourists is very rare. Instead, tourists are usually received with friendliness and hospitality since many Iranians are aware of the bad reputation of their country and they are actively trying to dismantle.
BUT: don’t get too comfortable because petty theft can happen anywhere. (Before Iran, the only place I’d ever got robbed was a tiny village in the UK.) Lonely Planet says ‘We have hitchhiked across deserts, stayed in the homes of strangers and left bags in restaurants and cafes without any problem.’ Which is absolutely ridiculous. Not the first two points – hitchhiking and staying with strangers is generally safe in Iran – but don’t leave your freaking bags lying around?? Iran might be safe but I still got 200 USD stolen from a hidden place in my backpack. So just take normal precautions, okay?
The biggest safety threat in Iran is probably the traffic. Drivers in Iran are crazed and big cities, especially Tehran, are hectic. Always look in all possible directions because if there’s something I’ve learned it’s that you can always expect a motorcycle. In a mall? Motorcycle. One-way street? Motorcycle going the wrong way. In a mosque? I mean, probably not, but better safe than sorry.
You don’t really have to worry about natural disasters either. According to Lonely Planet, earthquakes happen “every day” but they are so small you most likely won’t even feel them.
While Iran itself is safe, it’s not recommended to travel in border areas – more specifically, 100 km from the border of Afghanistan, near the Iraqi border or east of Bam towards Pakistan due to threat of terrorism. However, I know a lot of people who travelled in Iranian Kurdistan and even crossed over to Iraqi Kurdistan and had a safe, awesome trip – so just avoid the border near “actual” Iraq.
One thing, though: Iran is not a difficult place to travel, but it is not also the easiest. Language barriers, confusing public transportation, a very different culture compared to Western countries and the occasional lack of other traveller’s company can make Iran a more challenging destination. I would recommend Iran to backpackers with a bit more travel experience and an adventurous mind.
Solo female travel in Iran
Despite what my mum thinks, Iran is a safe destination for solo female travellers. This was widely the experience that most other solo travelling girls that I talked to had also had. However, I feel like I still need to give you a more thorough rundown of precautions I took and the few uncomfortable encounters I had.
When someone asks if a place is safe for a woman to visit alone, I feel like they are basically asking: what will the local men do to me?
In Iran, tourists are still a rarity although there are more and more every year, so naturally you are going to draw attention to yourself. This includes male attention. In some more traditional cultures, Western women are often viewed through the lens of Hollywood and pornography, and sometimes they are thought to be, for the lack of a better word, “loose”. Sometimes this leads to more harassment from the local men’s part.
I personally didn’t experience anything too bad, just your regular cat calls and stares, but there are girls that I talked that had experienced worse sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is something that most women experience even at home so in my opinion it shouldn’t hold you back from visiting your dream destination. We can’t let fear limit our lives. But it is also important to acknowledge that it happens and in some places getting harassed might be more likely than others; you have to decide for yourself if you’re comfortable with it.
I had heard a lot of stories about the hospitality of Iranians. What I wasn’t expecting, though, that when locals approached me, it was almost exclusively men. I would have been fine with talking to couples or families or women, but when all the all the attention came only from men, it put me a little on edge. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t feel unsafe; but I also didn’t really engage to men’s hellos. To me, this was a self-preservation tactic. I mostly didn’t feel comfortable accepting offers for tea or lunch from men when I was alone.
Apparently hitchhiking is also popular and easy in Iran but I did not do it there, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it alone as a woman.
I felt like buses were generally safe (well, except for the crazy driving and road conditions), and actually in Iran it is illegal for a man that you don’t know to sit next to you on the bus. So you’ll always be seated next to another woman and don’t have to worry about creeping hands during the long journey. Similarly, metro cars in Tehran have women-only cars at both ends of the metro train.
Afterwards I have kind of regretted not letting my guard down more often. I feel like I probably missed out on some wonderful interactions and interesting conversations that I could have had if I had been more open to talking to the men who were trying to talk to me. But the thing is – you can never know who’s a creeper and who’s just a regular wholesome guy. By being dismissive, I also felt like I could keep control of my personal safety. It sucks, and it is also usually a part of safety measures that solo female travellers often need to take.
A note on taxis…
I crossed the land border into Iran, meaning that when I arrived, I had no local money, no data, and no idea of what I was doing. I managed to get some dollars exchanged and took a taxi to the bus station. The driver threw my backpack on the back seat so I climbed in on the passenger site, kind of thinking it was strange but that maybe it was just the habit here.
(Note: I later saw people often getting on the front seat of the taxi and figured that maybe it was an indication about whether you wanted to talk to the driver or not.)
I was trying to talk to the driver with the few Persian phrases I’d written down from a website and figured out he was from Ardabil, the neighbouring city. Suddenly, he touched my leg, kind of like tapping it with the back of his hand, and then he did it again. I moved my daypack between me and him. After a minute, he gestured like I should move the bag because it was blocking the gear stick; so I just moved closer to the window and kept the barrier between us. At that point he made a sound that I interpreted as kind of an “okay then”, took a U-turn and started driving back to where we’d come from.
He had been trying to drive me to Ardabil, his city, instead of the bus station. And even though nothing major happened and he didn’t try anything else for the rest of the drive, it left me kind of confused and cringing.
Another time I was coming back to the centre of Yazd from the Towers of Silence after sundown. I was going to use an app to get a taxi, but I was tired and hungry, and when one of the taxis loitering around offered to take me for the same fee as on the app, I agreed. He almost immediately started asking for my number, Facebook, and even e-mail. I politely refused to give him any of them but he wouldn’t give up. He stopped the car and wouldn’t start driving again until I gave him my number, so I scribbled down a fake one on the notepad he gave me. He started driving but a moment later slowed down again, having put my number on his phone but noticing it didn’t work. I “verified” the number again, and I guess he decided he would take a look at it later because he started driving again and did eventually get me where I needed to go.
These were the only two times that I took a taxi off the street; every other time I was using Snapp, an Uber style ride share app, and never really had problems with their drivers. Maybe I just had bad luck but I’d strongly advice downloading Snapp and using it to get around.
Women’s rights in Iran
As a woman, you might be granted some leniency regarding the laws against women in Iran but I would advice not to take advantage of that. Iranian women have to live with the rules every day; they can’t escape the oppressive regimen by flying home.
The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Iran 140 out of 144 countries for gender parity. Women in Iran constitute 19% of the workforce in 2017 –. — Compared to other South Asian regions, women in Iran have a better access to financial accounts, education, and cellphones. However, Iran ranked 116 out of the 153 countries in terms of legal discrimination against women.
In Iran, it is illegal for women to sing or dance in public. The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law Index in 2019 scores Iran as the country with the fourth last on their equality index. There are no laws against discrimination based on gender, and no protection towards domestic abuse or sexual harassment.
Women were also prohibited from attending men’s team’s football matches, clerics arguing that women “must be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men”. Earlier this year, a woman snuck into the stadium dressed as a man and was subsequently caught and charged. As a protest, she committed suicide outside of the stadium by setting herself on fire. Her tragic example created waves; and in October, women were allowed for the first time in decades to enter a World Cup qualifier game after FIFA threatened to ban Iran from attending the World Cup. Female viewers were still segregated from the male ones, though.
Women’s rights movements exist but the most vocal feminists are in danger of arrest and persecution. Women have been arrested and jailed for posting pictures of themselves without the hijab on Instagram, promoting equality and attending female empowerment workshops in other countries.
As a tourist, you might not experience the full force of the limitations that Iranian women deal with daily. (You’ll get in trouble for breaking dress code, though.) But it is extremely important to understand what their position is in the Iranian society and understand the effect this has on their lives.
Women’s dress code
Women in Iran have to follow a stricter dress code than men. Like you’ve probably heard, yes, wearing a headscarf in public is mandatory, and no, you can’t skip out on that even if you’re a tourist. I detailed the most important guidelines to follow in my Iran 101 post but just in case you missed it, this is what you should be wearing while in Iran:
- Wearing a headscarf is obligatory even for tourists – but you can still show some hair.
- Long-sleeved shirts. In reality, though, many women do bare their forearms – just no t-shirts, okay?
- Long trousers or skirts. They have to cover your ankles.
- A shirt or a dress that covers your whole butt and other curves; although many local women wear their dresses and jumpers fitted around the waist.
There are some myths regarding women’s clothing in Iran. Firstly, you don’t have to wear closed shoes; any kind of shoes are fine, including open-toe and high heels. You also don’t have to fully cover up with a chandor although some shrines and mosques require you to wear one – don’t worry, they’ll borrow you one on the premises. It’s also a myth that you’d have to wear black or even dark colours!
In general, if you’re unsure what’s accepted and what’s not, watch then local women. They dress modestly but fashionably. You might get away with more than local women do but in my opinion that’s no reason to do so. Be respectful and wear the same things that Iranian women do.
My go-to outfit was a pair of yoga pants and a long tunic, and you can see lots of locals wearing something similar. My best advice is to get one or two suitable shirts before your trip and shop some more once you get there – clothes, as most things in Iran, are really cheap for Western travellers!
Safety for queer travellers
I feel like this is something I HAVE to mention. Homosexuality is illegal in Iran and can be punished by death, and while this might not directly affect you as a tourist, queer travellers should still be careful in Iran. From what I’ve heard, booking a hotel room together with your same-sex partner is not really considered weird since locals do it too (I mean, they can’t really share a room with their girlfriends before marriage). If you’re set on visiting Iran as a queer traveller, check out this blog post by The Nomadic Boys. It focuses on gay travel but might be useful for queer travellers in general!
To end with: political stability in Iran and American sanctions
So by now you’ve definitely heard that the United States and Iran are not the bestest of bosom buddies.
This is about to get political so strap on your smart-glasses and let’s go.
Iran and US, frenemies for life
Last June, US dispatched more troops to the Middle East and Iran shot down an unmanned American drone that they claimed had been flying in their airspace; Americans insisted it had been in international space. In a quintessential Trump fashion, we found out the next morning on Twitter that apparently he had called off a missile strike against Iran at the last minute.
Things have been slowly cooking up since the US withdrew from an Obama-era nuclear deal in 2018 and started imposing economic sanctions on Iran to stop them from supporting different military groups in the Middle East and developing their ballistic missile and nuclear weapon programs. For political decision makers, this barely means anything. For regular people, it means steeply increased prices – we are talking double and triple to usual – as the value of Iranian rial has plummeted, interruptions on imports (including medicine) and exports as well as foreign investors and companies pulling out of Iran in the fear that the sanctions might damage their business. Since this autumn, the US has also threatened to sanction countries that trade with Iran. In short, regular Iranian citizens are losing money with no way to make more of it.
(For tourists it means massively inflated prices so on one hand, now is the best time to visit.)
It seems that Iran has had enough of international oppression, however, and they are starting to fight back. Since June, Iran has gone over the limit of enriched uranium that they were previously allowed to have, meaning that they might be preparing to manufacture their own nuclear weapons. An Iranian oil tanker was stopped at Gibraltar, causing more tension. And then an oil refinery blew up in Saudi Arabia and Iran got blamed for it.
Iranians don’t want war. The state of Iran doesn’t want war, but they do want more power. Most US citizens don’t want war nor does their crazed Cheeto of a president, but there are people in Trump’s cabinet that hate Iran and are strongly pushing for military action.
Illegal droning… Or an international conspiracy?
In addition to this hot mess, news about a British-Australian couple arrested in Tehran made news this summer. The bloggers / videographers had been held in a local prison for ten weeks without anyone knowing so naturally international organisations went bananas – with little sympathy from social media. The couple was accused of espionage having apparently flown a drone too close to a military site, and I saw many comments online calling the two dumb for having done that, “especially in a country like Iran”. (And especially with things being as tense as they are now.)
The couple was released a few weeks ago, and here’s the real kicker – they were released in exchange for an Iranian prisoner held in a prison in Australia. I can’t be the only one to whom this seems a little shady. Since then I’ve heard that the original accusations were bogus and they had never actually been flying their drone illegally, and that their imprisonment might have just been a state-approved hostage situation.
I don’t fully know what to believe. It seems fishy but then again, Iran takes espionage incredibly seriously – I met a guy who was travelling with a big camera, bigger than a regular DSLR, and he got questioned by the police in Tehran because they thought he might have been a journalist. While in Iran, I decided not to geotag any of my stories or pictures on Instagram while I was still in the country.
So… What’s the verdict?
Despite all this political turmoil, I still felt safe. Life goes on as normal; it has no other options. But a lot of people were talking about the situation, both locals and backpackers, and the atmosphere seemed tense, even though I couldn’t fully pinpoint how it showed or where it stemmed from.
No one wants another war in the Middle East. If you travel to Iran, you’re very unlikely to get caught in a military conflict, but out of all the places in the world, this is one of the more likely places it would happen if there were to be a conflict somewhere.
You are also very unlikely to get arrested as a pawn to an international chess game. This is, however, something that the Australian and British foreign ministries have warned travellers about on their travel advisories.
Nevertheless, I think it’s extremely important to be aware of everything that is happening in places that you choose to travel to, especially in Iran where current politics are shaping the atmosphere in such a crucial way.
Americans (or Brits or Canadians) can’t travel to Iran independently but I have met some who have visited, mostly with a second passport. Most stories that I heard were positive, saying that Iranians seemed even more eager to show hospitality to Americans to show that their reputation was not based on truth. I did meet one Arab-American who said his experience had been “interesting” but also said he didn’t feel particularly unsafe either.
Summary: Definitely travel to Iran but do take precautions.
Travelling in Iran is at least currently safe, fun and fascinating – and definitely adventurous. Solo female travel is nothing extraordinary, and you will meet a lot of other solo ladies travelling around, mostly without any trouble. As long as you remember to be aware of your surroundings and take normal precautions, travelling in Iran can be just as safe a s a beach trip to Greece or a road trip in Australia.