How is hitchhiking as a woman in Iran?

How is hitchhiking as a woman in Iran?...
huffingtonpost.com 11/07/2016 Culture

Keywords:#Ardebil, #Armenia, #Europe, #Facebook, #Farsi, #Huffingtonpost.com, #Instagram, #Iran, #Iranian, #Mesr, #Netherlands, #Tehran, #Turkey, #Turkish, #Yazd

By Kim Berghout Hitchhiker, writer & video maker
Yazd, Iran

* * * Never before have I been to a country whereby the preconceptions of it are so far away from reality. There is no war in Iran, the country is generally safe, and the living standards are comparable to those of Europe. The architecture is gorgeous, the landscapes diverse and the people - the people of Iran are the best. They are incredible kind and friendly, and always eager to meet foreigners with an open door and a cup of chai. It really is an amazing country.
Nevertheless, hitchhiking in Iran can be quite a challenge, no matter if you are male of female. The vast majority of the country has never heard of the words ‚hitchhiking’ or ‚autostop’, let alone they know what it means. As soon as you cross the border to the east from either Armenia or Turkey you will get tons of people stopping for you without any problem, but with the sole intention to bring this lost tourist to the nearest bus terminal (next to inviting you for a chai or a meal at their house).
What also doesn’t help is that in Iran the ‚thumbs up’ signal actually means something insulting, so you will have to wave with your arm to make cars stop. As a woman, you will face even more weird looks and unexplainable situations, as it is not that common for women in Iran to travel by themselves.
Why would you hitchhike as a woman?
The Iranian people are extremely hospitable, and always ready to help a woman (or man) in need. Explaining that you don’t need help, are perfectly capable of taking care of yourself and actually enjoy standing next to the highway to wait for a car, is something many people do not seem to get. Trying to hitchhike (or wildcamp) together with another female traveler learned me that people either can’t or choose not to understand what you want to do, as it is way too dangerous in their opinion. Instead they will take you to the busstation, get you into a taxi, write you help signs for the police or escort you into a bus. As I hitchhiked some days with a guy as well, the difference was quite clear. With a man by my side, people actually dropped us next to the highway and let us do wildcamping (eventually). For sure, they were still confused and invited us to their houses instead, but the fact that the sentence ’that’s is too dangerous for you’ was reduced from ten to one time a day shows how big the gender gap is.
So what should I do, as an independent woman who has made it all the way hitchhiking from the Netherlands to Iran, when facing such sexism?
It would have been easy to just give up and take busses instead, but I am not a hitchhiker because I like to go for the easy way.
Although the people in this country are extremely worried about the adventurous mind and spirit of female travelers, Iran is actually quite safe. Usually, the biggest challenge for women traveling alone is the safety aspect concerning unwanted (sexual) attention from men. In Iran, this was not much more of an issue than any other country I have hitchhiked in. Actually, the Iranian men I encountered while hitchhike were mostly very polite, kept their distance and were in general very respectful. Of course there are always the usual precautions you should take when traveling alone or solely with women, but during the 31 days I spend in this country I never felt unsafe.

Mesr desert, Iran

* * *
Hitchhiking experiences in Iran

The best thing is that when you get an invitation to someone’s home in Iran, you don’t have to worry about being alone with a strange man, as basically everyone in this country lives together with their family.
One of our first few days in Iran, my hitchhiking partner Lena and I were picked up by a young guy, who invited us for lunch at his family’s house. It was one of the many invitations we got and accepted. As we had only been a few days in Iran, we didn’t know when it was appropriate to take the headscarf off and when not. The grandma of the house took our worries away by showing here own hair to us, and smiled. During the afternoon, more family members and friends dropped by. We danced together, ate together and overcame language barriers mostly by a mix of basic Farsi, Turkish and English, smiling, making pictures and a lot of pointing. When the sons took us outside again, to go on a city you’re the differences between the in- and outside world became even clearer. The headscarves had to be back on and if anyone asked we were supposed to have just met a few minutes ago. We learned the hard way about what wasn’t appropriate, as the guys seemed to be slightly embarrassed by our ‘strange’ loud behavior and random dance moves in the park. Back inside, we could dance again and enjoy a lovely dinner with the whole family.
During our stay in Iran, I really appreciated the grandma’s of the countries the most. The food is very delicious, and even though I am a vegetarian, people tried their best to make an Iranian dish without meat.
Another time, me and my female travel mate were walking across the highway in the middle of nowhere (we were just successfully dropped off by a car), when the police showed up. They asked us what we were doing and if we needed help. We tried to explain them that we were perfectly fine, do not need any help and that they can leave us alone. We almost thought we succeeded, until we got into a truck and the police car was suddenly in front of us – blocking the truck from driving further. They demanded us to go out of the car, and to see our passports. I think they were so shocked we would go into a strange car and that we definitely needed their help to get out of this situation, not knowing that they were actually doing the opposite. We knew people were extremely worried for us girls if we tell them what we are doing, but actually being stopped by the police and asked to stay right here while they would come up with a solution to get us to Tehran – was a whole different level of concern. In the end they got us in a car, who brought us to the next city, where another policeman was waiting to get us on a bus. There was no way to object.
Luckily, this was the most extreme situation I encountered, and hitchhiking actually worked after I got to learn the tricks and ways to explain people what I was doing.

Ardebil, Iran

Getting into the heart of the culture
Once you manage to actually get somewhere by hitchhiking and start to enjoy it, you will be able to see the real Iran. The Iran behind closed doors, underneath the hijabs and right inside the heart of the culture. A culture where all the strict rules that apply to the ‚outside life’ do not seem to matter that much. Inside their own cars and houses the people are the ones who decide how they behave and what they do. This is a part of Iran that you don’t want to miss. A part that is essential to understand even the tiniest bit of these interesting people. That is what I am doing it for.
See also the video I made about hitchhiking in Iran, to get a more visual idea of what I am talking about: Don’t hitchhike in Iran as a woman
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg9o65fdsuc
Kim Berghout is a Travel Journalist and Freelance Writer. Her work has appeared on VOA PERSIA, STOP AND STARE, TRAVEL WITHOUT MONEY, and more. Follow her travel updates and adventures on vrouwopreis.nl, Instagram and Facebook.
---Never before have I been to a country whereby the preconceptions of it are so far away from reality. There is no war in Iran, the country is generally sa... ---
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