The dress code issue for women in Iran has always been a hold back for many female travelers. Many believe that countries that enforce such laws on tourists or even their own civilians are to be left out of their bucket list. Others however are just confused.
Iran faces a hell lot of misrepresentation around the world which unfortunately is not always directed to its government only. Many times it’s the locals that are misrepresented. There’s no travel blogger who has visited Iran and hasn’t written about how he was surprised to see things where not as he imagined. By almost a 100% chance he’ll write about how Iranians were super nice and one of the most hospitable nations he has met. Sadly almost everyone is just shocked into knowing how Iranians are just “people” and the worst part is that people have to come all the way to here to realize this and not that many do.
The blogger or tourist is obviously not to blame. What he/she knows of Iran and Iranians is the horrible media coverage and the representation of films like Not without my daughter and Argo. I mean if the film gets all that attention and wins an oscar, you’d think it’s probably pretty accurate. right? NOT!
I get that what goes on in Iran might not come to your liking. Iran is a country facing a lot of big changes. A lot goes on here and certainly not all of it is good. The country has been struck by heavy sanctions since the Islamic Revolution over 35 years ago and things can get tough at times. Women have not been getting equal rights as men but they have become extremely assertive over the years and have been able to shift the society on their side dramatically. They occupy over 60% of university seats and have become very much socially active and economically independent over the years.
Enough rambling now. Let’s get on to the dress code thing.
Whenever I see foreign female tourists in Iran, it always seems like they’ve packed their most unpleasant piece of clothing to this part of the world. I’ve read many times from their experiences that they also felt extremely unattractive in their outfits. So here are some tips to make things clear and easy so that you don’t have to dress up like your grandma and also avoid any trouble.
#1 Go for colours
It’s false belief that women face limitation in the colour of their clothing. I’ve seen it in many guides (*cough*Lonely Planet*Cough*) and through the media. This is utter nonsense. There’s absolutely no restrictions in colour when it comes to the dress code. While unfortunately there is tendency for dark coloured clothing in Iranian women – something I personally don’t appreciate at all – just come to Iran during summer and you’d see Iranian girls rocking brights and neons all the time. So if you’re into colours, bring them along. They are probably the best idea during summer.
#2 Skinny jeans are allowed!
You’re probably warned a dozen times that you’re clothing has to be loose fitting so that it doesn’t reveal your body shape. Hence why I see most tourists in cargo pants and slouchy trousers. While this is stated as the Islamic dress code, things are not observed that seriously. Shops in Iran are packed with skinny jeans and tights, and Iranians girls don’t show any intimidation in wearing them. So why should you?
Tip: Remember, you’re a tourist anyway. The worse that can happen is a simple request. Something I’ve never heard of happening to foreigners. Things are easier on you than you think, so don’t make it harder than it is.
#3 Tunics and Cardigans are your best friends.
So you want to look appealing, follow the dress code and not have to go buy a new set of clothing for your Iran trip. right? Dig a little deeper into your closet and you’re bound to find either a long-sleeve, a 3/4 sleeve tunic or cardigan in there. Tunics are a great option for summer trips to Iran. As long as they cover up your bum you’re good to go (I’ve seen tourists wearing shorter ones with loose trousers too). If you don’t have a tunic, you might find a long tank top that can be layered up with a light cardigan. You might even have a dress that could fit in the criteria that can be paired with skinny jeans.
The key is to be creative with what you have. Apart from a few pieces all of the clothing worn in Iran is western designed.
Here are a few girls who combine western clothing to create modest outfits, perhaps you can get some inspiration. Check out Ascia, a kuwaiti/American fashion blogger here. And Leena a Texas based muslim fashion blogger who has a beautiful choice of colour scheme in her outfits.
#4 Shop for a Manto if you fancy one.
Iranian women either cover up with a chador (The black material worn on the head that covers the whole body) or a Manto (A trench coat type of clothing that comes in a variation of materials and styles). Since you’re likely to opt for the Manto buying one at the beginning of your trip could be a good idea. The fashion industry has been growing in Iran lately and there are a lot of designers who focus on bringing new materials and forms into the Manto.
You’re probably going to buy yours at a random shop but here’s to get an idea of how it can look like. These are obviously designer brands so they’re a lot more expensive but you’ll be able to find nice ones in normal shops scattered all across the country.
Keep in mind that wearing a manto is not mandatory. Basically anything mid-thigh would do.
#5 Burqas (veil) are not an Iranian thing.
This is another misconception seen in the media or in films about Iran. You will see women wearing black Chadors but chances you’ll see someone with a veil is almost zero in Iran. It’s just not in the culture, no matter how much someone might be conservative.
#6 Expand your scarf collection.
Scarves have been quite trendy in the past couple of years. You will probably bring the ones you have along but shopping for scarves in Iran could be a good idea. First, they are probably cheaper than most countries, they come in a huge variety and you’ll be able to wear them as a head scarf here and rock them as a neck scarf back home! It’s also a good way to help out local shops and manufacturers.
#7 Dont judge women based on their choice of clothing.
While there is a criteria for how you dress in public, you’ll find women to be dressed in many different ways. Some just wear a loose narrow scarf on their heads allowing whips of their hair to frame their face with untied hair also showing from the back, some will be with heavy make-up with their hair styled where it is shown, others might wear it tighter with hardly any hair showing and there are many women who prefer to wear the Chador.
The women in the chador are usually the ones represented negatively on western media. They’re usually portrait as religion fanatics with an extremely conservative mentality. This is absolutely not true! Wearing the chador is a choice many women make and while it does show their devotion to their religion it does not necessarily mean they are close-minded or conservative. I have many friends and family who choose to dress this way and are very acceptant, unbiased and broad-minded people. So before you get to know someone don’t judge a book by its cover.
#8 The heavy make-up situation!
Unfortunately there is gravitation towards heavy make-up in Iranian women. Some see it as a protest against the compulsory hijab. The fact is you’ll see many women wearing layers of make-up on a daily basis.
This is to say if you’re into make-up, you won’t be alone here!
#9 Sandals & painted nails are just fine
Sandals and open toes are perfectly fine for both women and men. You’ll see a lot of girls wearing sandals in the summer. Whether you’ve got painted nails on your fingers or your toes, you’d be just fine.
#10 What about cropped trousers & capris?
So let’s say you’re here for a business meeting and you’d want to wear something a bit formal with your super high heels. As long as your cropped trousers are right above your ankle, you’re good to go. Capris that come below your knees should be avoided.
#11 Maxi dresses and skirts?
Maxi dresses or skirts in general are not common among Iranian women, but that doesn’t mean you can’t wear them. Lately they’re actually becoming a bit more popular. But I’d think a light maxi dress that is not too thin to be sheer is a great alternative for the summer. If you’re dress is sleeveless, you could just layer it with a cardigan or top and you’re good. Keep in mind that if you’re going bare legs underneath, then you’d want to make sure your dress doesn’t come with slits. If the weather is a bit chilly, wearing leggings underneath could also be an option.
But for skirts that are not maxi, you’d need to have leggings or stockings to accompany. Midi skirts are great for the winter to match with leggings and boots. They are fashionable, smart and can be dressed up or down depending on your shoes.
You’d want to avoid pencil skirts, or bodycon dresses that reveal your body shape in a really obvious way.
#12 How old should a girl be to follow the dress code?
So according to the Islamic faith some would say over the age of 9 or 12. But like I said, things in Iran have a whole different system. Lately I see a lot of girls who are well over 9 and still don’t cover or at least not completely. So if you’re bringing along your daughter and you’re bit concerned and confused on what she must be wearing, I’ll make things easy for you. If you’re daughter still looks childish and doesn’t really have female features, then be easy on her. If she’s really tall, then perhaps it would be better for her to wear a loose scarf, but she can get away with short sleeves and capris. You don’t want her running around in tank tops or shorts, but if it was winter and she was fully covered on the body, she can also ditch the scarf.
They are not required to wear a manto or long tops, so make sure they are comfortable in what they wear or they won’t be enjoying themselves. Some of them will take the scarf as a fashion trend and probably rock it better than you in no time. But don’t be paranoid and go easy on them.
#13 High boots anyone?
High boots during the winter with leggings or skinny jeans are very popular and totally ok.
#14 What to wear indoors?
Last but not least all of statements mentioned above are exclusively to outdoor and public appearance. If you get invited to an Iranian house, feel free to wear whatever you like.
I wrote all this to make things clear and easy for your Iran trip and hopefully answer some of your doubts. In the end it’s up to you to decide whether you want to avoid Iran altogether or you want to be surprised. Almost everyone I know comes back from Iran with a whole new vision. All of the countries in the world will have issues and problems we won’t necessarily like but if we insist on making a change it will only appear through your interaction with the locals and the exchange of ideas.
Let’s build bridges and not walls.
Disclaimer: The article is in no way promoting the compulsory hijab enforced in Iran. It’s just to inform those in doubts and help them make the best of their Iran trip the way it is right now.
P.S. Special thanks to my gorgeous friends who let me photograph them for this blogpost.