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 women in Iran usually don’t 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 wild camp) 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?
Of course I did not just give in..
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.
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 friend 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 appreciate 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.
What are you doing here, at the side of the road?
Since unwanted attention from men are not more of a problem then in any other county I hitchhiked, the challenges faced have more to do with explaining people in a proper way what you are doing, how it works and that they don’t have to worry about you.
1. Explaining what you are doing
The best thing for hitchhiking in Iran is to get out of the city, passed the bus station and/or terminal and then walk even further passed all the taxi drivers. Me and my female hitchhiking buddy (we traveled with the two of us most of my time in Iran) usually just started to walk along the road, and people will stop automatically out of curiosity to see what you are doing and if they can help you. Another way is to make signs of the city that you want to go to in Farsi, and stand along the road.
Using the words hitchhiking and autostop have no effect at all, as people don’t know what you are talking about. Remember, they have a different history than Europe. There are no hippies from the 60s, they have not had any flowerpower generation and feministic revolutions.
Half of the time, I showed a text in Farsi to potential drivers that explained that we are traveling on a low budget (something very unusual in Iran), and that we do not take taxi’s, busses or trains. We want to meet the local people and drive with them on their way to their destination, if that is fine with them as well.
Also important is to ask first to the driver where they are going, as else they will just say the destination that you want to go to. Either because they want to bring you there out of hospitality and curiosity, or because they just turned into a private taxi (and will expect money).
The word closest to hitchhiking is ‚salaavoti’, which means something as ‚for good prayers’ and thus for free. I used this the other half of the time to explain what we wanted to do.
2. How it works
Something that is very usual in Iran is the concept of Tarof. This custom causes people to offer you a ride, food, a place to stay or anything else just out of normality, even if it is not really convenient for them. To make sure an offer is genuine an not a ‚Tarof offer’ it is important to ask multiple times if something is really fine with the other person. When hitchhiking this means you should ask ‚Salaavot okay?’, Pool (money) niest?’, ‚Are you sure?’, ‚No Tarof?’ before getting in a car.
3. They don’t have to worry
As soon as you get into someone’s car as a foreigner in Iran, you are their guest. And if you are a female traveler and there is no other man around, you are their responsibility as well. The country has amazing hospitality standards, and people will do everything for you if you ask (and also if you don’t). However, the concept of hitchhiking is that you drive with someone as long as it is convenient for both parties, and not for people to drive 100km out of their way just to help you or pay for your bus (really, these things happen a lot in Iran). Getting the driver to leave you at the highway is the sole biggest challenge for female hitchhikers. It is such an irresponsible thing to do, that drivers usually have problems with it. The European ‚you do your thing and I do mine, no questions asks’ culture does not apply in this country at all.
One 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 concernedness. In the end they got us in a car, who brought us to the next city, where another police man was waiting to get us on a bus. There was no way to object.
The only way me and my female travel mate succeeded in letting people leave us at the highway was to be very insisting and direct. Be prepared for being dropped at bus stations, terminals and police offices many times, before you get the idea.
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.
By Kim Berghout