When I landed back home, I was bombarded with questions from curious friends: What was it like to cover up all the time? Did I feel restricted in any way? Could I go shopping on my own? Was I free to walk in the streets without my husband? Was I even allowed to talk to men? I went to Iran for my honeymoon – and ended up falling in love with the women.
Those bombarding me with questions were my friends, young, highly educated Swedish women, and this reminded me of how little most Europeans know about Iran and everyday life there – I was certainly no exception. But when boarding the plane to Tehran, little did I know what a mark the trip would make in me.
An all-girls guide to – Tehran?
Almost ten years ago I found an unusual travel guide in a Parisian bookshop – a city guide to Tehran, written for young women by French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui. Far from your ordinary Lonely Planet, the guide is like an informal chat between twenty-something girls, discussing anything and everything from how to wear a rousari to what it is like to be a female university student in Iran. The Iranian girls interviewed in the guide seemed so witty, smart and strong – I immediately wanted to meet them, to hang out with them.
And now here I was, over a decade later, finally walking the streets of Tehran! We spent three weeks in Iran and I got the chance to talk to, and become friends with, a few Iranian women. Even though there was sometimes the language barrier making things a bit more complicated, we shared honest and open-minded conversations. They were just as curious about my life as I was about theirs, and in the end we discovered that our dreams and worries weren’t all that different at all.
Everyday life in Tehran
The women of Iran face, however, a whole different set of problems than I do. In Iran a man is, according to law, still worth more than a woman, and it is still him who is expected to support the family – and thus, the financial power is in his pocket. The Iranian women are restricted by social norms dictating what a woman should (or should not) be, say, or do – which also is the case for women in Europe. But a large number of Iranian university students are women (according to my travel guide, the number of women in universities grew when the headscarf became a must after the revolution of 1979, since this meant that girls from traditional families were allowed to attend mixed-sex classes) and the everyday life of Tehran’s women does at a first glance not seem all that different: they go shopping for the latest trends, giggle together in the subway, linger in hip cafés – and they flirt, wildly.
The art of creating your future
What totally floored me during my encounters with these women was how fierce, unafraid and patient they are. As a Swedish woman of the 1980’s I have been born into one of the most equal societies of our world, and for many years I took it for granted. So when my friends and I started hitting that glass ceiling, the painful thump came as quite a surprise. But for anyone living in Iran, finding alternative routes is a necessary way of life. They are used to getting no as an answer – and to consider it a possible yes. Have a look in the streets of Tehran and you will quickly see that a headscarf can in fact be used to cover almost no hair at all, a “covering” jacket can be tighter than a party dress and that an Iranian punk girl is even more rebellious, since the rules broken are not (just) about fashion. During my three weeks in Iran I saw so many brave and proud women, who are slowly and patiently creating a different future for themselves – and who looked nothing at all like the oppressed victims that my Swedish friends and colleagues had been expecting me to meet.