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 from Europe. The architecture is gorgeous, the landscapes diverse and the people ― the people of Iran are the best. They are incredibly 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 or female. The vast majority of the country has never heard of the words “hitchhiking” or “autostop,” let alone know what they mean. 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 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 it is not that common for women in Iran to 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 waiting for a car, is something many people do not seem to get. Trying to hitchhike (or wildcamp) together with another female traveler taught 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 bus station, 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 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?
It would have been easy to just give up and take buses instead, but I am not a hitchhiker because I like to go for the easy way.
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 hitchhiking 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 spent in this country I never felt unsafe.
Hitchhiking experiences in Iran
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.
In one of our first few days in Iran, my hitchhiking partner 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 her 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, the differences between the inside and outside worlds 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 appreciated the grandmas of the country 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.
Another time, me and Lenaand 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 to 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 we get 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 if we told them what we were doing, but actually being stopped by the police and being asked to not go anywhere while they would come up with a solution to get us to Tehran – was a whole different level of concern. In the end they got us in a car and brought us to the next city, where another policeman was waiting to get us on a bus. There was no way to object.
Luckily, this was the most extreme situation I encountered, and hitchhiking actually worked fine after I got to learn the tricks and ways to explain people what I was doing.
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 to 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. That is what I am doing it for.
See also the video I made about hitchhiking in Iran, to get a more visual idea of what I am talking about: Don’t hitchhike in Iran as a woman
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