THE BLOG

I Cycled To Iran And Found A Warm, Hospitable Country - But Women's Rights Has A Long Way To Go

03/03/2017 16:11 GMT | Updated 06/03/2017 16:55 GMT

'Iran is a prison,' the woman told me as she showed me around her small, sparsely decorated flat. 'Women have no value here. I desperately want to leave, but I can't.'

The woman, 37, was a PhD student at the local university. She was married, but lived alone because her husband remarried nine years ago after she told him she didn't want children. They never divorced, however, so she was unable to leave the country without his consent.

'I got accepted at a German university, but my husband didn't support my decision to study overseas,' she said. 'I'm trapped.'

2017-03-02-1488456008-3164870-IMG_3507_Fotor2.jpg

A woman in Bandar Abbas, casting off her hijab. 'I hate it,' she said. 'We should be allowed to wear what we want.'

The woman lived in a village near Isfahan, in central Iran. We met after she found me sprawled on the side of the road following a hot and exhausting cycle through the parched Iranian desert. The summer heat was a constant struggle, though I really should have acclimatised by then: I'd been in the country for three weeks, and on the road for nearly a year.

With only Maud, my bicycle, for company, I'd left London in July 2015 and slowly slogged my way across 20 countries in Europe and the Middle East. My aims for the trip were simple: cultivate a pair of shapely, toned calves that would be the envy of all I met; survive; and help shed light on a part of the world long misunderstood in the West.

My chief hope, as a journalist, was to challenge people's preconceptions by showing that there was far more to the Middle East than terrorism, tyranny and conflict. And that a woman could cycle through the region safely.

2017-03-02-1488456564-3548807-IMG_3613_Fotor.jpg

Shiite Bandari women from southern Iran wearing embroidered Boregeh masks. And a man looking practically naked next to them.

I reached Bandar Abbas, Iran, in May 2016, after travelling by boat from Dubai. The country immediately surprised me. It was better developed, greener and cleaner than I'd imagined, while the people were perhaps the friendliest I'd encountered on the trip so far.

They were also less religious than I'd expected, with around half of those I met claiming not to be 'practising' Muslims. This was especially true of younger, better educated Iranians, who were generally opposed to the autocratic Ayatollah and his suppression of political and social freedoms.

The more religious, conservative people tended to live outside the cities and in the south. They were more likely - though far from certain - to support the regime. And what became clear over the two months I spent in the country was the vast schism separating the two sides, with neither making any attempt to understand or accept the other.

2017-03-02-1488456799-6932612-IMG_3891_Fotor2.jpg

Young girls often wear provocative clothes and makeup until they are deemed to reach sexual maturity, usually at nine years old. This was a conservative gathering, with men and women in separate rooms and all women wearing hijabs.

What also became clear was the different treatment of women depending on where you sat on the social spectrum. One 20-year-old student, whose family hosted me in southern Tehran, told me she wanted to study and 'have fun' before getting married, but it would be hard. 'At the top, anything is possible,' she said. 'When you're in the middle, there's far less freedom.'

Iran's patriarchal culture largely stems from prejudicial policies implemented by the Islamic Republic. Women are expected to cover their hair and all flesh except hands and feet, and are prohibited from singing or dancing in public. In September 2016, a few weeks after I left, women were banned from cycling in public or in the presence of strangers.

Women can also only obtain a passport with their male guardian's permission, and married women have to seek their husband's consent every time they want to leave the country. If a woman wishes to gain her freedom by obtaining a divorce, she will face huge hurdles; only extreme reasons are accepted, such as physical abuse or drug addiction, and a high threshold of evidence is required.

2017-03-02-1488457167-2547963-IMG_3903_Fotor2.jpg

At this girl's ninth birthday party, she wore the hijab for the first time and prayed in front of all the women.


However, sexism in Iran clearly goes beyond religion and state policy. Across society as a whole, women are objectified and seen as fragile flowers to be both preyed upon and protected from the alleged 'dangers' of the outside world. Such attitudes are deeply ingrained - even among more liberal-minded youngsters.

At one of the many boozy gatherings I attended in Tehran, I told a trainee lawyer about the sex pests I'd encountered on the road. 'It's one thing when they're truck drivers, it's another when they're lawyers and judges,' she said. 'Every day I fight this. Every single day.'

2017-03-02-1488457297-2075616-IMG_6800_Fotor2.jpg

Party guests at a Tehran apartment rented out by a wealthy young man for $2,000 a month, just for socialising. All the girls were dressed up and many had had plastic surgery.

At the party, all the young women were wearing tiny skirts and towering heels, their faces caked with make-up. Around half had clearly had nose jobs. At first, this aspect of Persian society surprised me, but I soon realised it was not a counterpoint to social conservatism, but a corollary. Hijabs and high heels are two sides of the same coin: the sexualisation of the female form.

The lawyer told me that only around a fifth of the women at the party were likely to be virgins, but the rest were probably having anal sex to preserve their hymen. 'The men here are among the most open-minded in Iran,' she said. 'But underneath they still want their wife to be a virgin.'

The 26-year-old wore a fake wedding at work to avoid harassment from colleagues, she added. 'I have to pretend it's ok and just ignore it. Do you know what it's like to be a different person every day; to pretend and pretend and pretend?'

2017-03-02-1488457795-3878081-IMG_7300_Fotor2.jpg

A group of teenage girls who I meet in Darband, Tehran. They are 'held prisoner' by their father, who refuses to let them leave the house alone and plans to arrange their marriages. This is not the norm in Tehran, however, they stress.

Such pretence is deeply embedded in Persian culture due to the strict moral codes and importance of reputation, I was told by another woman I met in Tehran. Both adultery and pre-marital sex are illegal and socially taboo, but are reportedly common among both men and women (though they're far more socially acceptable for men).

The woman, 46, recently took the incredibly courageous step of coming out as a lesbian online - one of the only women in Iran to do so, she said. She then set up a volunteer counselling service to help couples resolve relationship problems through honesty and communication.

'Everyone must develop the courage to act and speak truthfully,' she told me. 'Otherwise Iranian society will never progress.'

2017-03-02-1488457892-5184363-IMG_6806_Fotor22.jpg

This woman (far right) bravely came out as a lesbian online and now encourages everyone to 'be more honest' about their emotional life and relationships.

Find out more about Rebecca Lowe's bike trip at www.thebicyclediaries.co.uk, on Facebook and on Instagram.