In preparation for my trip to Iran, I bought a hajab (head covering) and a jilab (neck-to-ankle coat) that I would wear and I bought a book about some of the expected behaviors when visiting an Islamic country.
I had fun waltzing around the house with my hair imprisoned in the hajab and the rest of me hidden under the jilab. I put the head covering on backwards and placed sunglasses over top and I undid the coat to show cleavage and thigh. Although my husband enjoyed viewing more than my face and finger tips, he kept reminding me of newspaper articles that referred to “morality police” and advised me to desist.
The book implied that I would be treated with respect so long as I followed a few simple rules such as keeping myself swathed in black, showing no hair and keeping my demeanor reserved — especially toward men who were not related to me.
Once in Tabriz, a town close to the Turkish border, I signed into the only affordable hotel available to foreigners. The desk clerk, a middle-aged gent did his Islamic part by giving me no eye contact but then he stroked my finger slightly when I returned his pen. I took this to be an accident.
Turning, I flung my pack over my shoulder and headed up to my room. A short time later, on my way to dinner, another gent approached me when I crossed the foyer. He wanted to practice speaking English. I asked how he knew that I spoke English and he pointed to my daypack. We spoke for a few minutes and he then recommended a good restaurant. As I edged my way to the exit, the gentleman patted my arm. This, I knew, was no accident.
Stroking, patting and rubbing turned out to be common practice for men in the company of foreigners. One afternoon, in an attempt to avoid being recognized as a foreigner I left my pack in my room and went to the market. I was neither mauled nor approached to speak English. But one gal I met had left her daypack in her room while she had breakfast and when she returned she found her camera missing.
While trying to avoid being mauled, I also wondered about the morality police. In the logic of Islam, it is the sensuality of women that lure men to act immorally and so when a grope or rape occurs, it is the woman’s fault, not the man’s. I then got the idea that the police wouldn’t be out to catch men stroking but out to catch women being stroked. I concluded that the men I had encountered weren’t only getting the thrill of touching an unknown or unrelated woman but they were probably setting me up to be hauled off by the police for my behavior.
This thought was confirmed while I was waiting in a city bus queue in Esfahan. When the bus arrived, a gentleman using hand gestures, made way for me to enter ahead of him by the front door. Once inside, the driver chastised me for using the men’s entrance. His hand flung out and he pointed toward the back. As I passed to and through a gate separating the two sections, I noticed the men sat with their heads down, eyes averted and women looked out the windows. I felt like a black person in Alabama before Martin Luther King came along.
A few days later, I went to a famous mosque. There were men with guns who immediately intercepted me when I got close to the front door and indicated with a nod toward the side door where women could enter.
Once inside, I started to relax and turned to look at the main attraction, a marble sarcophagus. A huge woman covered in a black chador held secure by her teeth, lumbered up to me and while wagging her finger at my nose she pulled at some hair that had escaped its prison. I tucked the offending locks inside my hijab and ran out. The unknown rules, the inequality of the sexes and the men were frazzling me.
I moved on to Tehran where I saw women smoking in restaurants and wearing headscarves rather than the tight-fitting hajab so I assumed behaviors were a bit more liberal. I began to relax. Then, one evening before dark, I was headed toward a pizza shop for dinner and noticed that I was being followed by two young men probably no older than 20. Smelling trouble I turned heel and headed toward my hotel, walking as quickly as I could with my long jilab nipping at my ankles with every step. The young men followed and on a side street just 50 feet from the hotel entrance, they cornered me. They rubbed their hands up and down my arms and pulled at my hijab to loosen my hair. I screamed hoping the hotel owner would come to my rescue but that didn’t happen. After about sixty seconds of rubbing and pulling they ran off.
Shaken, I entered the hotel and told the proprietor what had happened. He nodded in acknowledgement and admitted that he had been watching through the window. Coming to my rescue was not a consideration.
One of the foreigners in the hotel, seeing my frustration at the unconcerned desk clerk, told me that she had left her bags in the safe keeping of the hotel while she visited another city and when she came back she found that the hotel owner had given her bag away. He was indifferent about her complaints. I suggested she go to the police but she was afraid to do so since the police had a reputation for violence against women.
Normally I don’t go out at night when I’m travelling and especially when I am alone although I have made exceptions in safe places like Europe and Cuba. In Iran I took War and Peace to read — something to keep me occupied during all those hours inside. But even staying in my room with the door firmly shut turned out to be a man-magnet. One evening I was well into Tolstoy’s analyses of the war when there was a knock on the door. I opened it and a man looked me up and down and then demanded to come inside. Knowing that it was illegal for anyone not living at the hotel to enter a guest’s private room, I refused and shut the door.
I suspect that the desk clerk gave the man my room number and permission to go upstairs. When I complained to the hotel owner, he just shook his shoulders and turned away.
I decided that the book I had purchased in Canada was wrong about receiving respect in Iran and figured it was time to leave. I returned to Tabriz near the Turkish border so I could cross early the following morning.
While walking down the street I met a young man, again claiming that he wanted to practice English. I had decided to play these encounters as cool as possible, recognizing that if I offended him in any way, I’d be blamed for it.
As we walked along, he talked about the loose ways of the Western world. This was not a new conversation for me. I have found that men in all Muslim countries are curious about what they believe is the depraved sexual habits of westerners. The man I walked with went so far as to claim that in western countries (he had never been there but he knew) that while teachers taught at the front of the class, the students were fornicating at the back.
I walked faster and changed the subject. Suddenly three little girls about six or seven years old, dressed in pants and t-shirts and without head coverings came around a corner and started walking in front of us.
“Look at these,” said the man pointing at the kids. “They’re disgusting! They’re acting American! They’re sluts!”
His rant was so intense I became fearful for the children but I knew there was nothing I could do. Luckily, I was close to my hotel so I said goodbye and rushed up the stairs and through the door. The following morning, just as the mullah was calling the faithful to prayer, I headed to the Turkish border. Once across, I stepped into the closest washroom and pulled off my oppressive garments and stuffed them into the garbage knowing I’d never need them again.