Cycling in South America is about as easy as it gets when it comes to interactions with men. It has been different! Here a Mirror View on this particular subject:
The difference between a man and a woman traveling solo by bicycle in Iran
Yves, age: 47, from France. When put all travels together Yves comes close to 9 years in the saddle, travelled through 100 countries and ridden around 150.000 kilometer.
Cindy: We met in Gambia for the first time. Later on we met again in Liberia where we cycled on and off together until our ways separated in Ghana. Then we met once again in Benin where you shortly crossed into Nigeria. I would follow soon after, and tell all the security guards you were my husband. They all remembered you, as there are not many cyclists coming through.
We had an absolute wonderful time, together with two Irish brothers. It was like a perfect marriage where I remember you as the one who would make sure there was a dessert or something unsuspected in your panniers when we were camping at a place without food.
The subject of the coming questions lay in a pure primary mood. I remember how much fun we had about our -often sexual- jokes. We were quite a bunch; a roughish scaffold worker from New York, his easy-going adventurous triathlon brother, you; a very experienced world cyclist and me; a thoroughly world traveler but new on the bicycle. We all noticed how easy it was to get along with the African men and women, there was none of this hidden secretly want for another, nor oppressed desires, nor any indecent behavior. None of us had ever any trouble with men nor women. The African people would just ask for it, and accepted a ‘no’ for an answer just as easily. Men and women seemed to be equal.
It was rather easy for you to obtain the Nigerian visa whereas for me it took a week of negotiating between the Dutch and the Nigerian embassy. Here it became obvious that there are differences between men and women. For you it was okay to cycle in Nigeria, for me it was dangerous.
But undoubtedly the biggest differences between man and woman lay in Iran, where you are now cycling 2 months. The first time you cycled through Iran was back in 1998, where you were able to get a 3-month visa, an exception considering that most tourists would only get short transit visa’s. I have been to Iran trice and had troubles on each occasion, and not just eve-teasing. Of course, the majority of people are genuine, good-hearted and trusty, yet the hurdle in Iran as a solo female traveler is not to dismiss.
1) Do you feel cycling in Iran is a misplaced activity for you to be doing?
For me I often felt misplaced. I haven’t seen a woman who cycles in Iran. It’s not forbidden but no one does. I had everyone’s attention when I cycled through a town or a city. Even accidents would occur because people would watch me a bit too much. It certainly did invite quite a few men who thought cycling has something to do with free-spirited open-mindedness.
Yves: I don’t feel out-of-place riding, men ride bicycles in cities all over Iran, there are bike shops, amateur teams in major towns and I even spotted Lycra-clad race cyclists on a few occasions. It’s a different story out in the countryside, between towns. People do double-takes on me, park their cars to stop me, slow me down to have a chat, congregate around the bike wherever I stop. I do get a lot of attention, just like you did, it is quite nice but overwhelming sometimes. I try to be as nice as can be, people rarely see foreigners in a lot of the non-touristic places I go through. The fact that I speak basic Farsi helps, but also slows me down! Obviously only men stop. Women would never dare come up to me and talk to me in public view. But I know they look at me, sometimes turn around when I am past them (I can notice that thanks to my rear mirror), or turn around while seated in the back of the cars overtaking me.
2) As a man, how are you treated by the women? Do they welcome you in their houses?
I found the women truly warm. Although I could clearly feel they are oppressed and unhappy with the country’s situation (and sometimes the strict dress-code) they were welcoming me as their daughter or sister. In fact, the women were usually very happy to have me as their guest, and would bestow me with food for days, after the usual shower, freshly made-up bed, a phone call offered back home, a huge meal and plenty of sleep. The women would place mattresses in a separate room or right next to them, with a stove close to me to keep warm. Sometimes, when I was in a hostile situation, it was the women who would have the last word and comfort me.
Yves: Iran is a very hospitable place, invitations are a daily occurrence, even as an older solo male traveler. People’s homes are where I get to see and interact with women. Not all the time though, sometimes the women are just shadows I can briefly see or hear behind walls. Most Iranian homes are designed so that women can remain out of sight should a stranger comes in. Sometimes they are around, greet me, stay around a while and retain veiled up. Other times it feels like you are in Europe, they are completely at ease, unveiled and engage in conversations. You just never know when you step into someone’s home. You have to adjust. But it never takes me long to find out what proper behavior I should have with my hosts, be it restrained or open.
3) Can you imagine that for a lone woman cycling in Iran is not done?
I fully understand that this is not done, considering that a woman doesn’t travel on her own at all. She is always accompanied by a male, whether it be a nephew of 12 years old or her husband. The big cities are a separate story but as a cyclist you are often passing through the smallest settlements. Nevertheless, even without the bicycle, Iran is one of those countries where you as a lone European woman are seen as an easy possibility for pleasure, however veiled up you are.
Yves: I admire you for riding alone in Iran. Being a solo female cyclist here is no easy task. I have yet to meet a local woman in the saddle. The nuisance I have to deal with here are minor comparing to yours. I don’t have to put up with all the sexually orientated aggressiveness you had to put up with. It’s definitely a men’s world here.
4) Regardless from the oppressed situation, as far as this is possible, do you feel the Iranian men are as liberal, emancipated as you are as a European? Seeing their history, not so long ago similar to ours, you might expect so.
To me it seems the men have gone backwards in time if it comes to the relation with women. Of course, when women have to cover up so drastically as in Iran (and Afghanistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia too) automatically the opposite desire arises. It is in fact a fake statement, although I too prefer to dress unrevealing, it doesn’t say anything about the social moral code of the people. I wonder, is it the oppressed situation that makes many men sexually very frustrated?
Yves: 95% of the time I have to deal with men who overrun the public space. Cafes and chaykhanas are for men. Cheap hotels are for men. Gas station attendants are men. Most people who drive are men. Most farmers tending their fields are men. All of the police is male-only. It is a bit frustrating, but that is the way it is.
Sometimes when families come up to see me, their daughters are the only ones who can actually speak English. Most girls focus on education, more than boys. They are not shy. It is always a pleasure for me and it is always okay as long as the parents are around and ask her/them to translate. They do the first move.
In Shiraz (a big sparkling city) I was twice approached by bright, educated, English-speaking women. They did the first move. Both were alone. One in a simple restaurant, in her late 20’s, and she asked me right away if I had ever had an Iranian girlfriend! The second one was an elderly woman whose English was perfect. We were sitting in the park surrounding Hafez’s tomb, a beautiful place. We chatted for a while, she had travelled to Europe a lot. The funny thing is that as we were talking this black chador-clad woman looking totally conservative came to us. She wanted to know if we were related. My new-found friend said ‘no’, that we weren’t, and nevertheless she sat down and stayed with us. Turns out this woman coming from the north of Iran had decided to travel to Shiraz with some of her friends since her husband didn’t want to come along. She said she enjoyed the freedom it gave her for a few days. We all laughed so hard!
5) Do you think it’s sane for a European woman to cycle in Iran, whether alone or with a man?
I think it is, but it won’t be easy. Seen through quite some Iranian man’s point of view, it is weird to do so. Yet, Iran is a stunning beautiful and certainly one of the most hospitable countries on earth. It has a tremendously rich culture. The welcoming, open approach of the Iranian is not easily matched. Most people don’t agree with the mullah’s way and they are open-minded enough to see the reason for you to cycle through their country. Most men are just welcoming, trustworthy and kind. In fact, Iranian people in general are one of the most helpful. Yet, each day I had troubles with men, connected to sexual harassment, whether I was cycling alone or with a man.
Yves: Cindy, the going is overall a lot easier for me here. This being said I only get to truly interact with one half of the society, but you got to see both sides. This is a real advantage that you had over me. You were certainly able to experience more than I did, and your view of the Iranian society is certainly more complete and balanced than mine, be it positive or negative.
Sometimes I feel it is too good to be true here. But I don’t want to dig too deep, this is not the purpose of my visit. That’s why I refrain from engaging in political or gender discussions unless I know that the people I am with are trustworthy.
6) Do you feel fully at ease?
I felt reasonable at ease. Although cycling is strange and people would watch me, they never stared or made me feel uncomfortable. Would I be in the small villages I would be the central point of attention but never to such an extend as the full-blown circus in India. I never camped though, because I certainly did not feel at ease to camp. Often I was followed by men by the time dusk arrived.
Yves: I feel comfortable camping here, except for the region in the Zagros mountains which felt hostile and even aggressive. Even if spotted I know that as a male traveler on a bicycle, this will be accepted. After all, this is a land where nomadism is still deeply rooted, and nomadic tents are to be seen everywhere. But I can’t even fathom having to do it as a solo female traveler.
I made several mistakes already.
The first week I was in Iran I went to the post office of a major town to mail some stuff home. Turns out the only English speaker there was this bright, handsome young woman. She took care of me, knowing that none of her male superiors understood a word of what she was saying. When all was done she discreetly gave me her name and phone number and I reached out to shake her hand. Big mistake. She totally froze up, embarrassed. So was I. Everyone around noticed and sort of laughed, but we both felt bad.
7) Has anyone asked you wanted sex? I know it happened in Africa, because I was with you when a woman shoved an inviting note under your door, but I cannot imagine an Iranian woman does something similar. Do you sometimes feel men are more than just friendly?
I had several assaults, besides more than a few invitations for sex. Men would come to a halt on the highway, block my way and either ask for sex or make movements to make clear they wanted sex. Truck drivers would stop after they passed me, hide behind their truck and showed me where their penis was hiding. One man lay naked on his bed in a simple traveler’s rest-house and held his hard-on in full view each time I walked by. Motor drivers would ride beside me, asking for sex, or I would be groped while they passed me. This happened almost each day until I start carrying a broken belt drive, as a whip.
Yves: Walking on the streets and avenues of big cities I get a lot of eye-contact with young women. They really stare at me, check my face, my clothes, most often with a smile on their faces. I know that in different circumstances, in a different country, they’d come right up to me to have a chat. But the restrictions are in place and obeyed, and I am not the one going to cross the red line for obvious reasons.
The wide, wide majority of men are kind to me, it just shows in their eyes and manners. I have almost never felt that they were hitting on me. Having come here before I know that male friends pat themselves a lot, sometimes walk hand in hand, and kiss themselves on the cheek 3 times if they are close. I was kissed so many times in Iran. But I come from a Latin culture and we also do the same in southern France, so I feel right at home! Just to give you an example: I was free camping last week in the middle of nowhere and this guy riding his motorbike spotted me. Darkness came and I was already in my tent when he came back with 2 other guys, one with a gun. I had to explain what I was doing there, most probably on their property, but eventually this young guy sort of apologized and kissed me on the cheek before vanishing!
8) I know you are well aware of the background of Iranian people, you speak Farsi, do you think it is mandatory to know about a country its culture, especially an Islamic one, before you set off?
To see the viewpoint of Islamic people you must know their culture and the fundamentals of society, I believe so. Only then you get a clue why they behave as they might do. So when I cycled through Iran, after having been there twice before, and after having spent years in Islamic cultures, I knew what lay ahead. A woman does not cycle. Not alone, not at all! In fact, a woman rarely travels on her own, as she is usually accompanied by a male. So a woman alone on a bicycle must understand that consequences are her own!
Imposing our point of view, our feminism, will only be oil on fire. It has to evolve within their own culture, with their own women. Not with European women cycling through. So I understood why men did what they did, although I did far from appreciate it. It didn’t make me feel bold, and I certainly didn’t accept it, but I understood why their minds where leading them. Television, internet, (porn) DVD’s and the wrong information lead to this behavior too, narrow-mindedness doesn’t help much either.
In Afghanistan, for example, I was not allowed in the cheapest of lodges, where in Iran I was. Often I was not disturbed at all, but to be allowed in the cheap accommodations means there are men of all walks of life, and I have to deal with that. How do you think of understanding, and accepting, it’s culture? Is it taking or leaving?
Yves: It is always difficult to find where the boundary lies when you are an outsider in Iran and you have to interact with women. There are the rules, the public space, and what people do at home which sometimes very different.
Having travelled at length in the Muslim world I have to say that women are ubiquitous in the working place, which is very different from most Sunni countries. They share offices with men, run restaurants sometimes, sell fruit by the side of the road. And I have the right to talk to them then, it is completely OK. Iran is such a complex society.
Obviously my take on Iran has changed a bit considering what happened in the final week before reaching Shiraz. But it was just that ‘rotten pocket’ of the country. I cycled a part of the Zagros mountains which is the territory of the Lori people, a tough bunch. The atmosphere deteriorated day after day. Cold looks, no invitations for chai and young guys following me to the point of harassment, even an attempt of mugging. I was escorted for 60 kilometers by police men who would later on search my stuff. Not the nicest region in Iran. The darker side, so to say. It came as a complete contrast to my first month here.
During that week where I had to deal with these not-so-friendly men, two women sort of unwillingly lifted my spirits. When I had to camp in this unfriendly village (men surrounding me, asking if I had money with me, trying to displace my bike at night) this gorgeous woman from the house across the street brought me my dinner in the evening with the nicest, friendliest smile on her face. I wish she could have stayed around… The next morning, as I was packing up and leaving really early, before dawn, this cute little girl also came around. I think she woke up before all of her male family members so that she could be alone with me for a few minutes. She also had the purest of smiles, and she filled my water bottle before I took off. I will remember their faces.
This are just pockets of roughness in otherwise pleasant countries. This doesn’t affect my likings for Iran.
Cindy: I agree with Yves, because it is the positive happenings which always float to the surface. I will gladly return to Iran again, and just carry a new belt drive.