Some of the most common questions I have received since travelling to Iran have involved what constitutes appropriate attire for female foreigners.
So for any and every woman who will travel to Iran in the future, here is a crash course in what you can wear, what is required and what you should absolutely avoid – enjoy!
Lets get this out of the way first.
Yes, if you are a woman, you are required to wear a hijab/headscarf. This is not optional, it is a requirement.
However, the rules around how you should wear your hijab are rather relaxed. In bigger cities like Esfahan, it wasn’t uncommon to see women with more showing than was covered! You don’t need to have the hijab completely covering you up, you can wear it loosely and have some of your hair comfortably showing.
Also, if it falls down for a second, it isn’t the end of the world, just tug it back into place and get on with your day – as long as you aren’t brazenly walking around with your headscarf completely off, you will be fine.
Prior to my trip I had read numerous reports of women being approached by the ‘morality police’ and told that they needed to cover up more of their hair. This did not once happen to me and it did not happen to any other female traveller I met whilst in Iran. It may happen, but I don’t believe that it is a widespread thing or something to be overly concerned about.
Finally, I feel the need to say that no, I did not feel oppressed by needing to wear a headscarf. To me, this would be comparable to being offended by having to wear a sarong at temples in Bali! I did not mind wearing my headscarf, and if being required to wear a headscarf is something that you are deeply opposed to, then I suggest that you just avoid the whole thing and avoid travelling to Iran.
In addition to donning a hijab, you will be required to keep on covering!
In winter, most women will wear slim fitting jeans, a loose and long tunic top that comes to below ones bum, a long coat that comes down to mid thigh and a head scarf. However, in the warmer months, looser pants and flowy tops worn sans coat are the way to go.
As a backpacker who hates having to lug around excess junk, my outfits for Iran did not exactly match the above criteria. My coat only came down to just below my bum and I sometimes wore tops that only came down to mid-bum; but these were always paired with flowy harem pants. I occasionally got a few curious glances, but nobody ever commented on my clothing being inappropriate, so I think I did okay.
I also wasn’t sure until my last few days in Iran if it was okay for me to show my feet, so I had been wearing the very stylish combo of socks with my birkenstocks – which probably wasn’t the best look!
As it turns out, feet are fine to show, so if you find yourself wanting to wear sandals – go ahead and do so – preferably without socks!
One of the hardest things I experienced when trying to pack clothes suitable for Iran was that I really didn’t own many pieces that could be worn alone and be considered appropriate. Also, I visited Iran in the middle of a much longer trip in which I travelled from the frosty -41 degree (celsius) temperatures in Greenland right through to the +25 degree warmth of Jordan, and as a result, packing clothing to fit all of these climates (and numerous different cultural backgrounds) without lugging around my entire wardrobe was not an easy task!
So for me, layering was where it was at.
Dressing from the waist down wasn’t too hard – I rotated between black jeans and flowy black pants – but dressing the top half of me was a little trickier.
In the end, I had one long tunic and one flowy white top that I could wear. But worn alone, both of these tops would not be okay.
The white top was on the sheer side and had a v-neck cut which would be considered modest in most western countries, but provocative in more conservative places. The long tunic was also a v-neck cut, and also quite wide across the shoulders, meaning that it left a good few inches of my shoulders, neck and upper back exposed – which if left exposed, would also be a no-no.
So, underneath both tops I layered with the same long sleeve tops I had used in colder climates and successfully stopped myself from flashing any flesh that I shouldn’t have!
What You Can Show
Really the only body parts that you can comfortably show in Iran are your feet, hands and face – most everything else will need to be kept under wraps – literally!
It is worth noting that it is acceptable for a woman to show her wrists and a 1-2 inches of her forearms, but most women will not do so.
The majority of religious sites in Iran can be visited without any change to ones normal Iranian attire, however, some of the larger or more traditional mosques may require women to don another piece of religious garb, which will more than likely be a chador.
This large piece of cloth often resembles a cape and is designed to cover all of the body, leaving only the face exposed. At religious sites where a chador is required, there will be public ones available to be borrowed.
Despite needing to wear a chador, most places remain fairly relaxed regarding hair coverage, and only once at a very traditional mosque was I asked to make sure that not a single bit of my hair peeked out.
Different Place, Different Expectations
When travelling in Iran, do your best to embrace the new styles of dress. Female travellers wouldn’t second guess being asked to cover their shoulders at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, so why would they have a problem with being asked to wear a headscarf and dress conservatively?
Sure it may not be the cultural practice you are used to, but after all, isn’t being exposed to new places and all of their different cultural norms kinda what travel is all about?
So just remember, different places have different expectations.
Go with the flow and enjoy the ride!