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.

   
   

Shiraz – Pink Mosque

The Pink Mosque was not on my original itinerary, but my guide said it was her favorite and we had a bit of extra time, so we stopped in the morning before heading out to Persepolis. It did not disappoint!
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Built about 150 years ago during the Qajar Dynasty, the mosque is particularly unique because it is the only one with European motifs – images of buildings, possibly places of worship, are surrounded by pink flowers, pink being the main color of the building and how it got its name.  

I’m told the best time to visit the Mosque is in the morning, and I could easily see why. The morning light shines through the stained glass, completely illuminating the room with a glow of rainbow light. It was absolutely delightful to see. The way the colors sprayed themselves across the already beautiful tiled work and the Persian carpets in deep reds. Most of the stained glass is covered by curtain in order to protect the wood of the building from the sun, but even with just the sun streaming through the top section, the glow is warming.
  
Of course, as in any Mosque, one takes their shoes off before entering. The PDX Carpet holds nothing on a Persian rug!
  
I am in love!  

Iran Impressions

Due to bandwidth issues, I have yet to be able to post more pictures of my adventures in Iran via my blog. Until I get to Dubai or home, I wanted to share with you some general impressions of Iran. I have been told I am brave, and while this is so flattering, ultimately I feel like this is no different than visiting any other country, and ironically, much safer in many ways.

Safety:

I have never felt as safe in any country as I have in Iran. Unlike in Turkey, men do not leer or harass you in the streets. There is very little crime as far as theft of tourists. The government has in fact done an excellent job of preventing such theft. I’m told that in Esfahan, there used to be unauthorized guides who would charge very high prices and would basically rip tourists off, a form of theft in itself. My guide said that after many reports of this, the government intervened and she hasn’t seen this in a while now. Certainly you should still be careful with your money, especially considering the banks are not yet accepting foreign credit cards and you can only use cash.

Language:

I had initially heard that many Iranians speak English, but this was an incorrect assumption. If you come to Iran alone, without a guide, you may find it  difficult to communicate, especially with taxi drivers. Certainly it is not impossible, I met an Irish man traveling without a guide, but I suspect it is much more difficult without knowing at least some Farsi. The hardest part I think would be negotiating the taxi fee before the trip, which can be important so you don’t get charged too much. In the hotels it is easier to find people who speak a bit of English, and in many of the tourist shops this is true as well.

With that said, it seems that most Iranians know how to say 3 things: “hello,” “how are you,” and “I am fine.” Just walk down any street and somebody is sure to yell “hello!” They love it when you respond back!

Police and border checkpoints:

Driving from city to city, especially anywhere near border areas, you are sure to encounter police checkpoints. This can seem intimidating at first, but you quickly learn that they are not at all interested in you. In most places, they are looking for drugs brought across borders as well as illegal refugees coming from places such as Afghanistan.  It is similar to going across any border from Mexico or Canada into the US, but it is between major cities. 

People:

Everybody I have met here has been extremely friendly and welcoming. They are often very excited to hear I am American, even those who appear to be very religious. They also flatter me daily, I have heard no less than six times that I am beautiful, they apparently love blonde hair and blue eyes. One young woman almost scared the heck out of me when she very excitedly approached me out of the blue to tell me I have beautiful eyes. Good for the self-esteem for certain! 🙂

History:

Iranians are very proud of their history, and I think many of them would still prefer to be called Persians. Despite the objections of some hard liners, they still celebrate the Zoroastrian New Year, Nowruz which is coming up very soon. It is probably the biggest holiday here. 

Pollution:

I’m sad to say that Iran is a very polluted country, at least the areas I have visited are. Tehran and the major cities have a big problem with air pollution, I think due to the low grade gasoline they use. There is also a lot of trash dotting the  landscape, even miles outside of a city. I wonder if the releasing of sanctions and an increase in tourists will help the Government to start controlling the issue a bit more. For a country so proud of its history, it would be nice to see it also be proud of its beautiful environment. 

Politics:

Iranians are very happy with their current President, especially after the oppression brought on from the last. No longer do they need to worry about the Morality Police except in certain cities during certain times. And tourists need not worry about them much at all. They, and people from other countries that I met did want to talk much about the coming Presidential election in the US. It is easy to forget that when we vote, we are impacting the whole world. Rightly so, Iranians and others are very worried about Trump. More than anything, they worry about more war caused by politics. I also met people from France and Ireland who are watching us with astonishment. It seems like a big joke, but to them it is not. I wish Americans would take more seriously their role in the world, and stop acting like children. Honestly, it is embarrassing to be an American sometimes. 

This is just a short and general bit of information, I would love to know what else you want to know about Iran. Please leave questions in the comments and I will reply as I am able!

Transportation in Iran

Yesterday, we took a 9 hour bus ride from Shiraz to Kerman. I think I was more tired from that than I have ever been on any plane ride, even the 14.5 one from Seattle to Dubai.

Initially, I thought it would be great, there was lots of room to recline and sleep, but there were no stops for food or bathroom. Thank goodness we had brought some snacks with us. Fortunately, that will be our longest day on the road.

What surprises me the most about Iran is the traffic. If anything here is dangerous, it is trying to cross a street or drive. While there are traffic laws, they are 100% not observed. A 3 lane road often turns into a 4 or 5 lane one, a two way road can suddenly turn into a one way, and there will sometimes be 3 directions of traffic crossing an intersection at the same time.

The worst of it however, is trying to be a pedestrian. You literally have to put your hand up as if to say “STOP!” But you will be lucky if they do. I’ve seen women with children trying to cross the street and cars going right by them, so close that a person could reach out and give them a high five going by. And many drivers get mad at pedestrians for getting in their way!

Yet, somehow, through all of this, I have yet to see any accidents or injuries occur. I think there is some luck in this, but I don’t understand it!

Today we will be exploring Kerman, a city which I know very little about. On the schedule is a visit to the Moshtagh Ale tomb, Ganjali Khan hammam, Kerman Jame mosque, and a drive to the Shahzadeh Gardens. Will be interesting to see some more things that I know nothing about! While in Shiraz my guide took me to a Muslim Holy Site that I didn’t know anything about and I was completely overwhelmed by it.

For those of you who don’t follow me on Facebook or Instagram, I apologize for not being able to share pictures yet, the Internet gods here don’t like uploading pictures it seems and I’m tired of trying. I will post them when I return home though! In the meantime, feel free to follow me on Facebook under jessicakimmet.