Women in Iran

Upon finding out that I am 35 and without children, an Iranian woman exclaimed “Inshallah!!!” with great exasperation. She was about 20 years old when she had her first of two children, not as young as one would expect from a woman living in the Iranian desert, but ultimately, not very old. In Iran, as you might guess, a woman’s role is primarily as mother and homemaker. But there are some stereotypes that are not true, and of course, some that are.

Education & Unemployment:
In recent years, women have made up more than 60% of the population of university students in Iran. They are highly educated, a shocking revelation to many Westerners. Yes, it is true that women have been barred from some courses in an attempt by conservative clerics who are concerned about upsetting the status quo and messing with gender established norms. The biggest problem, however, from a Westerner’s perspective, is how high the unemployment rate is for women compared to men, despite the educational gaps. In a country so engrained to believe that women belong in the home, only about 13% of the workforce is female. That’s not to say that women aren’t financially important to their families and country.

Work:
Many Iranian women contribute financially to the household even without holding traditional employment. I met a group of women in the desert who had begun their own business selling handicrafts, a part of the proceeds would be going to help pay for repairs to the Qanats (the town’s only water source). Women also run family businesses from home or they work on the family farms and help run family restaurants. My guide who’s full time job in tourism kept her 100% outside of the home was a female and we met other female guides along the way. Additionally, Iran does not bar women from owning businesses and women even hold high level positions in banking and government.

Clothing & Fashion:
I met an Imam in Iran who said that the majority of Iranians want to wear Hijab. I don’t know how true the “majority” part of that statement is, but I do know that some do want to wear Hijab and some do not. How women dress does depend on where they live and what day it is. For example, in a more conservative city, most women wear burkhas, but in a more liberal city, women might only wear hijab and manteau (a long coat). On religious holidays, they might pull out the burkas just for good measure. During the last Presidency, women’s clothing was policed much more than it is today. Don’t let those burkas fool you, underneath is a woman who exudes sexuality. She’s probably wearing designer jeans imported illegally from Europe, and she has very likely had a nose job. More and more women are also seen wearing makeup as restrictions have eased and women are slowly retaking their independence.

Am I saying that women’s rights are perfect in Iran? Heck no. They’re not even perfect in the United States! What I am saying is that all of our assumptions about Iran are not accurate. I do hope that as Iran opens up, more Iranian women will stand up for their human rights and will have better opportunities in the workforce if they choose. But it’s also important that we not think of them as stuck in a pit of despair awaiting the West to come free them. Iranian women are intelligent and passionate, they will find a way to protest, even if it is just a bit of red lipstick.

 

 

Esfahan

I am madly in love with Esfahan. Noted for its Persian gardens and tree-lined River, it is unique compared to the other cities I have been to which are dry and dusty (of course beautiful in their own ways). Despite being a very religious city, Esfahan is also very cosmopolitan, one can easily find high fashion here (imported illegally), right along side the chador and hijabs.

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Esfahan was the capital of Persia for many years, and it does not disappoint with relics from those times past. The Imam Square (Naqsh-e Jahan Square) is the centerpiece of the city, built in the early 1600’s as the seat of Shah Abbas’ capital. Abetting the square is the Royal Mosque, the public Mosque (Sheikh-Lotfollah) and the Ali Qapu Palace as well as a great bazaar. In the afternoons, all of the shops would close and polo matches would take place in the square.

Music Hall in Ali Qapu Palace

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Sheikh-Lotfollah Mosque

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The Royal Mosque

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Naqsh-e Jahan Square

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Also of great importance in Esfahan is the Jolfa district, the Armenian quarter which was built in the 1600’s to help Armenians of a border town called Jolfa escape persecution from the Turks and also bring trade to Esfahan.

This church is the only place in Iran where I got told to mind my hijab (it had fallen down), this despite it having fallen down in 2 mosques! I am told that the Armenians have to be more careful because the Iranian government watches them closely.

The Holy Savior Cathedral (Vank Church) is a World UNESCO site and particularly interesting with its mix of Iranian and Armenian art.IMG_4594.JPG

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Zurkhaneh – “House of Strength”

One of the most unique experiences I have had in Iran was getting to watch the zurkhaneh, an ancient mix of sport and religion that is thousands of years old. I am told that it began during a time when the Iranians were ruled by other nations and they were not allowed to train for war. They created this form of exercise to represent said training but incorporated ritual and religion into it, primarily Sufism along with Mithraism.

The one hour performance is accompanied by the singing and drumming by a leader who is singing verses from the Iranian epic the Shahnameh as well as poetry from Hafez.

Each of the exercises is designed to represent a different weapon:

Representing the Sword

Representing the Mace

Representing the Bow & Arrow

Around Yazd

I got a free day in Yazd to do whatever I wanted, and since it’s Friday and much of the city is shut down, I decided to take a half day tour of a couple of places outside of the city.

Our first stop was to the Zoroastrian holy pilgrimage site Chak Chak (means “drip drip”). Here, it is said that when the Arabs invaded in the 600’s, a princess escaped by running into the mountains. There was no water for her, so she threw her staff at the cliff and water began to drip out. I am told that the compiles swarms with Zoroastrians who come for a festival held in June.

It’s a pretty steep hike up, but when you arrive, you are treated with this beautiful building set around the cliff where the drip still comes. It is the only place in those mountains where water is all year round.   

 
Of great importance to Zoroastrians are the four elements: water, air, sand, and fire. Fire is the most important because it is the only one that cannot be polluted.

  
Our next stop was to the 1,000 year old village of Kharanaq which was inhabited until just about 40 years ago. The government assisted the local villagers in building new homes as these are very difficult to maintain and not very safe.

The bricks are made of clay mixed with straw which acts as an insulator. Also included in the mixture is salt which keeps any seeds in the straw from growing and helps snow melt on those rare occasions when it appears. 

   
   
 

Desert Lodgings

We stayed in the desert for 2 nights, the first at an Eco-Lodge in a small village called Shafi Abad. The camp is owned and run by a small family with a couple of adorable children. We slept in huts made of dried palm branches (and in tents) and we ate in rooms built from clay bricks and palm branches. This family has been running the camp for many years, and it is not an experience to miss. 

The little girl was quite intelligent. My guide spent time teaching her English and she picked it up really fast! She painted my nails with Henna, and I shared some Portland chocolate with her and her parents. I think in many ways she is a lucky child, to get to experience so many different cultures without leaving her home. She is very bright, I think she will do some interesting things.

At night, we could hear coyotes, wild dogs, cows, and roosters in the village and surrounding area. We saw some nightingales as well, enjoying the fresh dates off the local Palm trees!

  

  
The second night, we drove to the Zein-O Din Caravanseraie, built 400 years ago as part of a network of 999 others to protect traders and promote trade along the Silk Road. It was renovated a few years ago and now serves as a hotel for those who want to experience the life of a caravan trader. We slept on raised platforms with short walls separating us from the other rooms. 

  

   

Sunset from the rooftop!
    
 

Kerman

I didn’t quite know what to expect from Kerman, Lonely planet says it has been a trading city since around the 3rd century AD. It is just on the edge of the desert, the landscape out here being very similar to areas that I have seen in Nevada. Outside the city are large rocky, dry mountains. The whole area is very dusty for lack of water.

We were meant to see a few different things this morning, but the Mosque and Hammam were both closed because it is Monday. Near that area, however, we did go to the Moshtari-ye Moshtaq Ali Shah shrine, a mausoleum for the Sufi mystic Moshtaq Ali Shah. He is known for putting the Quran to music, which earned him disfavor resulting in stoning. But he was quite popular and his burial place was made into this shrine made of mirrors!

 
  
Probably my favorite part of the morning was walking around the bazaar, watching people, and seeing all of the handicrafts and craftsmen at work. It is quite clear that Kerman is more conservative, as I’m told Yazd is (we go there soon). Most women wore the chador in black, though my guide said she doesn’t know why they wear black, apparently the Prophet said it is best to pray in light colors. Despite the conservative and religious outlook here, I did not feel strange in my bright colors including a pink hijab. I think they are becoming more accustomed to tourists.  

At the bazaar, I purchased a Kermani pate, a brightly colored square of cloth handmade and embroidered with wool. I’m told that this is the only place in Iran where this type of artwork is done. The results are quite beautiful. 

  
 

The Iranian Desert

In my last post about Kerman, I talked a little bit about the landscape. After we left Kerman, the landscape became incredibly interesting and diverse. Driving from Kerman towards Shadad, where we would explore a couple of stops on the way, it is shocking how quite suddenly the mountains appear on the horizon. There is no gradual ascent to them, they are just suddenly there. Like everything else, they are dry and barren, very unlike the green mountains of my home. But you can clearly see some interesting geology including the water line of an ancient sea. 

We stopped first at the 1500 year old Rayen Citadel at the base of the mountains. Many such citadels were built especially to protect villages along the Silk Road. If an enemy approached, the local villagers would enter the citadel for protection. Additionally, a number of people lived within the citadel walls along with the governor and his family who had a special castle within the walls. Over the centuries, the complex was altered and it actually housed people until as late as 100 years ago.

The complex is made of dried mud bricks which helped with cooling in the hot summer. 

   
 We began our ascent over and through the mountains after our stop in Rayen. The descent into the desert is where it gets really interesting. Slowly, you can see the plants become more sparce and the rocks become more sandy. There are quite a few dry river beds. Then, somewhat suddenly, there are hundreds of Nebka trees dotting the area. It was difficult to get good pictures from the car, basically they are trees that grow on top of sand mounds, the sand somehow protects the roots. 

  
The best part, however, come after the Nebka trees disappear and there is only sand. Here we find the Kaluts, 5-10 story naturally occurring sand castles created over millennia by the wind. Here, we got out of the car to explore, enjoying a chance to play in the sand.

   
 
  
Nearby is a small village called Shafi Abad where we stayed in a family run Eco-village. Water for the village comes via the mountain by Qanats which I will explain in a later post. 

The weather was unimaginably fantastic. When we left our lodgings to explore the area, a great wind and rain storm came just as we were visiting with some local women who have started a business selling their handicraft. We ended up spending the afternoon with them after the storm passed and the skies were beautiful with rainbows and dark clouds. 

  
   
In the village is an old caravanseraie where we explored and climbed around. They are currently working on reconstruction efforts. The area boasts some spectacular views of the mountains.