Category Archives: Iran

Man attracted to other men? Iran says you need gender reassignment

In our week relaxing in Izmir we binged out on international media, and one thing we found was this: an in depth report from the BBC about an apparently common practice in Iran where young people who indicate they are attracted to others of the same gender are encouraged and/or forced into gender reassignment surgery.

Homosexuality is illegal, and punishable by death. In contrast the Supreme Leader was once so moved by the plea of a woman who said she was living in a man’s body, that he issued a fatwa – a non-binding religious ruling – that said gender reassignment surgery was okay. This has resulted in:

The individual stories in the reporting are instructive, and moving. There’s:

  • the young man whose family said he could either become a woman, or they would kill him
  • many who flee across the border to Turkey as refugees including
  • one who has setup a Queer Railroad to get those facing persecution our of Iran
  • the woman who called him for help, and didn’t know how to answer his question as to whether she was transgender or lesbian: she didn’t know that the latter existed

This practice is another example of the stunning contradictions in modern Iran. It’s like a drastically souped up version of  women with hair covered with veils and noses touched up by surgeons. Before we visited we might have expected that both homosexuality and transgender identity would be frowned on in a conservative Islamic society like Iran. Now, the practice of encouraging homosexuals to change gender makes an odd kind of sense: it represents the kind of clash of religious conservatism and modernity that we appreciate as part of Iran’s complexity. Doesn’t mean we’re any less appalled, though.

More Persian pretty – arch-itecture edition

Following on from the unexpectedly wide interest in pretty Persian patterns, I bring you Persian arch-itecture. Those Persians sure know what to do with arches.

The patterns of Persia

One of the real delights of travel in Iran is the patterns: intricate, careful, considered and beautiful. You see them in mosaics on buildings and woven into carpets. Every mosque or public building, and every virtually every floor, is covered with them. Take a look.

What is your idea about Iran?

“What is your idea about Iran?” Some mass produced English textbook must be responsible for this question, and how frequently Iranians asked it of us. They’re often satisfied by our answer that says the landscapes are beautiful and the people kind. But some of them genuinely want to know our idea about Iran. They know their country gets talked about overseas and probably not in a very favourable light. So they want to know, quite candidly, what we think.

The truth is that we don’t have an idea about Iran. We’ve spent a month traveling about but we’re not closer to a grand unifying theory. There is too much complexity and too many contradictions. I still can’t get my head around how a country with such an excellent and civilised ice cream culture, for example, can countenance stoning its citizens to death. Does not compute.

What I can say is that some of the big ideas we had about Iran before we came were challenged, and dismantled in our time there. We’ve talked about the little surprises already. Here are some of the bigger ones.

It’s quite rich

There's money to be spent on designer sunglasses and over priced lemonade.
There’s money to be spent on designer sunglasses and over priced lemonade.

Economic sanctions have stopped BigMacs and Boeings getting into the country, but they haven’t stopped oil and gas flowing out. India and China are willing consumers. And as a consequence Iran is quite rich. It feels more developed than we expected. Streets are clean, beggars are few and far between. The population is literate and educated. We’d have no hesitation visiting a hospital. There’s disposable income to spend on smartphones and the bazaars you buy them in are centrally heated in winter. Iran is a middle income country. It makes sense to identify it as one of the countries that could be the next big thing. Certainly if and when sanctions are lifted it could get rich, quick.

Travel is still pretty cheap, though. Subsidised fuel leads to improbably low bus and taxi fares. Food is cheap, if a little lacking in variety. The only time we really felt stung was paying for accommodation. There isn’t much in the budget range. When Iranians travel we suspect they stay with relatives and friends. And most of the tourists we encountered were continental Europeans who were in, or nearing, retirement, puttering about in tour groups and staying in mid range hotels. Their presence, by the way, is also an indication of how safe and easy Iranian travel is. Continue reading What is your idea about Iran?

Charitable interpretation: Iran’s massive religious foundations


Boxes like these are all over Iran. At first I thought they were for an incredibly well developed postal service. Then I learned they’re actually to collect donations. When Iranians give to them their monies end up in the hands of the bonyads, mega religious foundations that provide social services we would ordinarily expect to be delivered by government.

When Iranians buy a can of soda, a pizza strudel, or a hormone to encourage sturgeon to produce more caviar, they are contributing to the bonyads too. They were gifted assets that had been confiscated from detractors in the revolution. They have legislated monopolies. And they pay no tax. Some estimates say bonyads account for as much as 20% of Iran’s GDP or 40% of the non-oil and gas sectors.

It is the bonyads who help the destitute in Iran, support the families or martyrs, veterans and persons suffering from serious disease. It is like the Iranian government has outsourced social security to something that is part state owned enterprise and part make a wish foundation.

A a very superficial observer, the system seems to work. There is a notable absence of beggars on the streets of Iran, even as compared with Turkey which is a much richer country. But I’d hold off on suggesting we start up bonyads at home. There are some pretty major concerns:

  • There are more than a hundred of them and they don’t coordinate. The government doesn’t know what, why, how and to whom help and assistance is given. Some folk must fall through the cracks, and certainly some get unduly rich.
  • Bonyads are unaccountable. They don’t present audited accounts and they don’t have to answer tough questions. It is likely that the bonyads are a major source of Iranian funding that gets channeled to groups like Hezbollah but no one can know for sure.
  • They control so much wealth that they’ve become a force of their own in the complex web that is Iranian politics. One commentator suggested the head of the largest one has the single greatest influence on the Iranian economy – more than the Finance Minister or head of the Central Bank. Another likens their influence to Popes and Cardinals in medieval Europe. Sure, the Kings were “in charge” but the papacy had the money.

Safe to say, knowing all this, even the left over rial we had as we crossed into Turkey was not going into a bonyad box.


A headscarf wrap-up


When I travel I always try to be respectful of the culture I am visiting and that includes what I wear. I also like to be comfortable in what I’m wearing. And I won’t lie. Wearing a scarf around my head because Iran’s religion dictates it, but more specifically because its government requires it, was an imposition.

My headscarf had to be in place every time I left the confines of my hotel room. Apart from quick readjustments to ensure an acceptable amount of fringe and neck were covered I could only remove it in the ladies’ bathroom. A few hotel courtyards were a pleasing exception.

For our first two weeks in Iran as we made our way down the central tourist corridor the late summer sun was scorching. This led my mother and I to search the bazaars for the lightest summer scarves available. Still, with no breeze on our neck, and long sleeves and pants, sightseeing was hot stuff. We retreated to our hotel at midday to cast off our additional layers.

As we moved north and cooler weather quickly arrived I started to wrap my scarf more tightly. In the holy city of Mashhad I took to the more pious style of circling the head a couple of times and tucking the end tightly under the chin. While this may have pleased the likes of Muhammad the cleric I was more interested in the cosy warmth created around my ears. The headscarf is a very effective beanie substitute.

Over time my comfort with the scarf increased. I would occasionally inadvertently leave the hotel room without it, but I’d feel naked and immediately return. One gripe that stayed with me was my inability to redo my hair. Hair clipped up at the back of the head was most effective for capturing wayward strands and providing something to check the scarf’s inclination to slip off. But this same hairstyle was most uncomfortable when trying to sleep on a bus. Undoing and redoing my hair under my scarf, without it exposing an immodest level of hair our skin, is a skill I never managed to master.

The bus trip to the Turkish border was a particularly hot and stuffy one, heightening my anticipation of the moment I could shed the scarf for good. I removed it with the Iranian emigration post still in sight. Running my hands through my locks and scratching my scalp felt like freedom in that moment.

The Supreme Leader et al

There have only been two Supreme Leaders, and their names are infuriatingly similar. The first is most revered, which probably explains why the current one shows the original over his shoulder in official portraits.
There have only been two Supreme Leaders, and their names are infuriatingly similar. The first is most revered, which probably explains why the current one shows the original over his shoulder in official portraits.

Islamic Republic is a pretty honest description of Iran’s government. Its institutions represent a genuine mix of democracy and theocracy with just a hint of constitutionalised autocracy thrown in. It is the theocratic and autocratic institutions which given Iran’s clerics and its conservative establishment so much power. The key institutions are:

The Supreme Leader

  • Is hired (and theoretically fired) by the Assembly of Experts, a religious group popularly elected every eight years
  • Is a high holder of religious office
  • Has one of the coolest titles available, but is generally just called ‘the leader’ by Iranians
  • Has his portrait everywhere
  • Has official control of the military and of the massive religious foundations that account for 20% of Iran’s GDP
  • Makes important important appointments to judicial and religious positions
  • Tends not to speak openly on day-to-day political issues but has enormous behind the scenes power

The President

  • Is directly elected (in French style) every four years
  • Is constitutionally the second most office, but in practice has their power significantly constrained
  • Does most of the things we would understand a President to do unless the religious institutions don’t want them to

The Majilis

  • Is what we’d call a Parliament
  • Is directly elected every four years by anyone who cares to vote
  • Has 290 members and has, since its inception, always included women and members of religious minorities
  • Has to approve the President’s budget and Cabinet appointments
  • Passes legislation
  • Has powers to investigate the executive, except the religious bits

The Guardian Council

  • Is like a cross between an upper house and a supreme court
  • Is a strong conservative institution which is key in maintaining the status quo
  • Has twelve members – six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six jurists appointed by parliament (on the recommendation of the judicial chief who is appointed by the Supreme Leader)
  • Must approve all legislation passed by the Majilis as consistent with Iran’s constitution and, more vaguely, with its status as an Islamic State
  • Rejected 35% of legislation proposed by one especially reformist Majilis
  • Also gets to vet all candidates for elected office and frequently disqualifies those who stand for change
  • Generously decided that women and non-clerics could stand for the last elections of the Assembly of Experts then
  • Disqualified all women and non-cleric candidates because they didn’t have the requisite Islamic qualifications

If my bullets don’t do it for you the BBC has got a reasonable diagram of it all. And if you ever want to sound like you know something without knowing the details (generally my approach) you might be interested in my thoughts that follows.

The institutions are designed to allocate power in a particular way, and that feels oddly familiar. But whereas western traditions seek to balance and check powers, the Iranian system seems to unequivocally vest it with the religious establishment. That’s why you see it contorting in unexpected ways. For example, the Supreme Leader appoints half the Guardian Council, and and the person who nominates the other half. The Guardian Council vets potential appointments to the Assembly of Experts. And the Assembly of Experts appoints the Supreme Leader. It is pretty easy to perpetuate power in circles like this because it is in the interests of none to challenge the status quo.

Despite this, there is still a dose of democracy in there, and more than you’ll find in neighbouring Kuwait, or the Gulf States. Assuming folk feel elections are free and fair (which isn’t always the case) there is a chance to have a meaningful influence on government. But if Iran is going to have wholesale political change, the current institutions are unlikely to support that. If a party thinks women’s testimony should be as valuable as a man’s in a court of law their candidates are unlikely to be able to stand for the Majilis, and if they can, they’re unlikely to be able to get legislation to that effect approved by the Guardian Council.

Ending our Muhammad subscription

We interrupt our lunch to chat with Muhammad.

Remember Muhammad? He was the cleric who we met buying plane tickets, had an extended chat with Fi about the virtues of headscarf wearing and was a useful tour guide to us around the Holy Shrine in Mashhad.

Muhammad liked us. Sure his views on hejab weren’t to our tastes, but he’s a conservative Shiia cleric in a conservative Muslim country so that wasn’t, like, a surprise. Also they came as elegantly explained as he could muster with very limited English and amidst an endless offer of other kindnesses. He wanted to take us to dinner, to meet us in Tehran, to drive us to Shiraz and host us in his home. None of his offers really suited our plans, but we gave him our phone number when he asked for it. We’ve seen virtual strangers swap numbers on the street here, so we thought it was the right thing to do.

Then we heard from Muhammad a lot. He called a few times a day. He got worried when we didn’t pick up. He wanted to know where we were and what we were doing and most of all he wanted to see if there was any prospect in meeting up again. No obstacle to this reunion would be too great…

We were in Tehran! Could we wait three days for him to get to Tehran? No we could not because our visa was expiring and we had to leave the country. On exactly what did did our visa expire and when might we be able to return? Soon, and then we had people to meet in Turkey. Could we bring them back to Tehran and he would host us all?

We tried to be polite and then evasive but polite. Our visa and our plans in Turkey really were a constraint. But the more evasive we became the more calls we got. And the worried texts when we didn’t pick up. He missed us, he said. Meeting us had been the best time of his life, he said. We’re hoping that message was motivated by limited vocab rather than sincerity. We tried to make it increasingly clear that we wouldn’t be able to meet in Iran again and to do our best to extinguish the idea that Muhammad should join us in Turkey. And then we just had to end our Muhammad subscription, stop taking his calls and replying to his texts.

If we were from a different culture (or possibly just frank people) we would have told Muhammad he was bothering us and he might have gotten the message. But where we come from telling someone not to talk to you is kind of a big deal, and we usually rely on them picking up on social queues to establish when they’re not wanted. That’s less effective in cross-cultural communications, I guess.

We’ve been a novelty in lots of the places we travel: China, Pakistan and Iran especially. People want to practice their English on the street, to learn about New Zealand, to take photos with us (more or less surreptitiously) and a couple of times lately people have wanted to explain Islam to us. I like to think we’re pretty tolerant of this. We always say hello back. I don’t think we’ve ever turned down a request for a photo. Some of these interactions have turned into the most insightful conversations we have had about local life (like this and this). Some have ended up a bit uncomfortable. And sometimes the sheer volume and intensity of people who are interested in you can be tiring. I’m now a little more sympathetic to zoo animals and those dolphins who are trained to do tricks.

Small surprises in Iran

small saffron

Our guide book claims that you could travel the globe, but nowhere will you find as many surprises as Iran. They’ve got a point. There are lots of things that have raised our eyebrows. As we move into our last days in Iran and start to wrap up our thinking we’ll write here about some of the big surprises.

There are little ones that deserve some recognition too, so here’s a collection:

  1. It’s pronounced ee-rahn, not i-ran.
  2. This is the only country we’ve visited where a different set of numerals is in wide usage. Most prices are written with Persian numerals, and all number plates display them.
  3. Persian language is written right to left, but the numerals are written left to right.
  4. I knew Iranians were keen on football so was surprised to have seen to playing fields. Turns out there are many, but they are all hidden behind walls so women can’t see men playing wearing shorts.
  5. Salt and vinegar potato chips are available everywhere which is awesome.
  6. Iranians also like to preserve fresh cherries in vinegar which is not awesome. Such a waste.
  7. In one month here we have seen exactly one supermarket. I’m sure there are others, but they are certainly not as common as Iran’s development might imply.
  8. Despite hejab requiring that women cover their head, shoulders and arms at all times, Western-style wedding dresses are popular: white, strapless, showing bare heads and shoulders, and even cleavage. Apparently weddings are exclusively family affairs and so relatively immodest clothing is acceptable.
  9. Girls whizz around parks on roller-blades. Those nine and above have to wear headscarves, and they fly out behind them as they skate. It’s a sight to see.
  10. Some Mosques feature free mobile phone charging stations, like you might find in a Koru club.
  11. I’ve got no proof (and in fact it seems it is African states that stand out) but there seem to be an uncommonly large number of twins in Iran.
  12. I’ve said it before but it bares saying again because it seems so incongruous of Western understandings of Iran: this country has more nosejobs per capita than anywhere else in the world. And because you can read more about it here.
  13. Sure it’s got lots of oil and gas but Iran is also the world’s largest producer of saffron, pistachios, honey and a range of different berries.