Last summer, I spent about two weeks in Iran. For me, this experience is worth sharing because it was eye-opening in many ways. It essentially taught me to question over-simplistic perceptions based on a Western viewpoint about the Middle East.
I really wanted to go, first and foremost, because I believed the sights would be amazing. And I just told myself “it will be an adventure”, and I would be able to brag about it. Truth is, I mostly knew just three things about the country: It is an Islamic republic and a dictatorial regime, liberties are restricted, and I would have to wear the hijab.
Ironically, I only knew the problems and restrictions, and that led me to believe that such a trip would be quite a challenging experience, a voyage into the unknown, almost as if I was to enter the country for the sole purpose of analysing (or rather dissecting) every little feature of that oppressive society.
You probably have understood by now that I had grossly misperceived Iran. My friend and I arrived in Tehran, the most beautiful mess of a city, incapable of speaking a single word of Persian, utterly lost. During two weeks, we travelled through four cities (Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz) and met different families who offered us a place to stay.
The first family we met can be described as rather conservative and traditional: the family’s patriarch had directed Iranian television and radio for 50 years (essentially controlling the propaganda of the regime); his son occupied military functions. I was quite surprised when I found out I was not allowed to talk to men, nor could I take off my hijab inside the house. Nonetheless, they welcomed us quite openly and taught us the rules and traditions they lived by.
In contrast, another of our hosts was very different: aged 21, managing his own business, he could be described as part of the “golden youth” of Shiraz. He did not consider himself a Muslim (although I had believed it was compulsory to be religious in Iran), took us to secret parties where there were no hijab or manteau (a kind of all-body covering robes) in sight, but rather mini-skirts and make-up. The younger people we met actually lived dangerously, but quite freely. Although their public life was restricted and subject to laws, their private life was essentially their own, and these did not differ from the lives of any youngster around the world. For them, liberties were not taken for granted, and thus much more appreciated, in contrast to liberal democracies where liberties are considered a normal feature of society, and thus are often stumbled upon.
During the entire journey, I gradually felt safer and safer. I came to realise I was the one restricting myself, not daring to talk to everyone, afraid of being a woman in a country where I believed women were discriminated against. In fact, the greatest “discrimination” I suffered from was a refusal to play pool with the men… There are, of course, enormous inequalities between men and women, but the feminine gender is also set on a pedestal in some ways. Mothers within the families have an astounding respect from the rest of the family. Some women make their way to top positions within companies: I had the chance to meet a 30-year old woman from Tehran who worked in a major Artificial Intelligence company.
All in all, I believe this country is widely overlooked, not only as a touristic destination but in general as a member of the international community. Let us not forget the legacy of the Persian empire: such a rich civilisation remains essential to anyone’s understanding of the world. Stereotypes and biases make us believe that Iran is essentially a “backward” and closed country, where people are deprived of aspirations to a normal life. I found out it was not the case through the different people I met.