Category Archives: Iran

Probably because women can’t do math

We visited an Asian fusion restaurant in Iran’s upscale northern suburbs with an English menu and the requisite selection of mocktails.

The men in our party were given menus with prices. The womens’ had no numbers at all. The inference, it seemed, was that the man would pay for the woman, so she didn’t need to worry about the dollars and cents rials and toman. What this signals about expectations of work and financial management I’m not sure. It just stands as a slightly quirky example of the many things we are learning about women in Iran that are difficult to put together in a kind of grand unifying theory:

  • Relative to Pakistan, we’ve seen far more women driving and working in a wide range of jobs. They also eat in restaurants and go out to socialise with their friends, without a male chaperone.
  • There are as many women in higher education courses as men, though their rate of employment is much lower.
  • Women and men sit separately on local buses (even if they’re a married couple who boards together), and there are dedicated women only carriages at each ends of subway trains.
  • The average age at which women marry is twenty two, but the legal age of consent is thirteen. Gross.
  • A woman’s word is valued less in a court of law than a man’s.

“Zeros do not matter”: the curious case of currency in Iran

“Zeros do not matter in Iran,” said the moneychanger. We were trying to get to grips with the exchange rate he was offering. It seemed completely unreasonable. He was offering 150,000 rials when we thought it should be well over a million. Finally he understood our confusion: he was quoting in tomans each of which is worth ten rials.

The Iranian currency is inflating quickly as the economy struggles under the burden of international sanctions and the government tries to spend to buy on-going popular support. In response Iranians have just stopped counting the last zero in prices. So a taxi-ride is quoted as five thousand instead of fifty thousand.

It’s not a big deal for the locals who grow up with a rough appreciation of how much things should cost. For them the use of tomans is as natural as a New Zealand real estate agent pricing a house at “six fifty”. But for a tourist that is unsure about costs, and is still trying to get to grips with the exchange rate and the currency with an infuriating lack of western numbers, it’s mighty confusing. My recently acquired rule of thumb is this: if it seems too good to be true, times the price by ten.

We’re not much used to haggling with moneychangers, and so in this context it was especially confusing. They seem the type that might try and pull one over you if they can. But our normal approach of withdrawing local currency from an ATM is not a goer. Economic sanctions designed to dissuade Iran from continuing to develop its nuclear programme mean it is cut off from the international banking system.

Maybe the inflation is galloping ahead of the linguistic changes now, but it seems like even tomans are out of date. It would be more sensible to drop three zeros, or at least two. The smallest note I’ve handled so far is worth 10,000.

The den of American espionage


In late 1979 Iran’s revolution was in full swing. The Western backed Shah had just been deposed and the streets were full with rioters as the country tried to eek out a new constitution.

A group of conservative students stormed the US embassy, took most of its inhabitants hostage and kept them captive for over a year. Their fear was that the Americans would hijack the revolution to engineer another government that was favourable to the West. That wasn’t entirely unreasonable given the 1953 coup that the CIA orchestrated, ousting a democratically elected government in favour of the Shah, a hereditary ruler. You can find a collection of the documents that embassy staff couldn’t shred fast enough before capture here. I don’t mention this to imply sympathy for hostage takers, but neither is it fair to paint the student captors as unreasonable zealots.

By the time the hostages were released their capture had been endorsed by Iran’s new Islamic government, a US military mission to rescue them had failed, and Jimmy Carter’s presidency was in tatters. When Iran agreed to their release it also had other things to worry about: a war with Iraq to the south and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the east.

The old embassy compound is now the headquarters of a militia group who pledge to defend the revolution. It’s literally called the den of American espionage in Farsi. The US seal on the outside wall is crumbling, and it is flanked by anti-America murals. My favourite is shown in the picture above: a skull headed statue of liberty and an Israeli flag flying above congress. The murals are striking, but our guide book warned us to be discrete when taking photos; the militia still aren’t wild about us infidels, so we didn’t linger long. Should you feel the need for more anti-American images, you can find some entries to a recent Iranian art competition on that theme here.

The clearest sign that this used to be an embassy - a crumbling US seal.
The clearest sign that this used to be an embassy – a crumbling US seal.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Iran still haven’t normalised. The two countries base liaison teams in Swiss and Pakistani embassies respectively to avoid having a formal presence in each others countries. There are talks ongoing at present where Iran is considering rolling back elements of its nuclear programme in exchange for weakened international sanctions. But it seems like the transactional nature of this discussion defies the deeper distrust between the two regimes, intensified by their respective views of the others’ intervention in other Middle Eastern conflicts. Whether Iranian opposition to ISIS might justify some more leeway on its nuclear ambitions is still up for grabs.

We hear no American accents among the small tourist population shlepping from one landmark to the next here, because they are hardly ever issued visas. Locals are interested in where we’re from – they’ve heard New Zealand is beautiful, and when their English is good enough they seem to know where it is. It’d be fascinating to know whether they’d have the same reaction if we said we were from the States.

Mocktails no joke in Iran


Iran is dry. And I don’t mean dry like 1920s prohibition Americas dry, I mean actually dry. There’s supposed to be some alcohol drunken in the miniscule Christian community, and I’m sure there is a bootlegger or two, but we haven’t seen a drop of liquor since we arrived, and we don’t expect to until we leave.

To fill the alcoholic void, restaurants go out of their way to improvise other drinks. Mocktails are the order of the day. They’re pretty good, and infinitely superior to the local drink doogh which is a horrendous fizzy, salty yoghurt combination. Mint lemonade is my current go to. And when it’s blended with ice its a sensational respite from the baking midday heat.

The hotel we stayed at advertised champagne and we thought we’d order some to see what it really was. The waiter was at pains to explain to us it was actually sparkling grape juice in the hope of dulling our expectations. He then surpassed them by arriving with the bottle resting in an ice bucket and ceremoniously shooting the cork across the room.

There is also beer that proudly announces 0.0% alcohol on its label. Right about the bit where it tells you if it’s lemon, apple or peach flavour. It doesn’t taste like beer. It tastes like lemon, apple or peach flavour, with just the slightest hint of a malty aftertaste. It’s not beer, but it’s not unpleasant either.

We’ve no qualms in going without alcohol for the month that we spend here. Three weeks without in Pakistan was a breeze, too. But the absence of alcohol here seems highlighted by the effort that’s gone to mimic it. It adds up to the feeling of a country playing at being alcohol-drinking, like a fourteen year old girl’s birthday party where the most cocktail thing about the beverage is the glass and the little umbrella. And there’s something inauthentic about that.

What women wear in Tehran

We’ve spent time in three officially Muslin countries in as many weeks and each has had a very different approach to the dress of women. In Pakistan (as Fiona says) women wear matching three-piece suits with a long, unflattering tunic, baggy trousers and a headscarf which, depending on the situation, might be left to flop around the shoulders.

In Dubai the focus on Western trade and tourism means that almost anything goes for women, though the locals all wear the cape-like chador that encases all but their face and hands. Ex-pats living there develop a sixth sense of when they might need to be more conservative, roughly the same as how kiwis know when togs become undies.

Iran is different again, and the most interesting. Womens’ attire is actually prescribed by law here, rather than just a cultural norm. Women must wear hijab which means a headscarf, sexy butt and elbows covered and trousers that go all the way down to the floor. The certainty of the rules seems to have given women license to push right up to them, at least in Tehran, the most liberal and cosmopolitan centre. There are plenty of chador wearers too. But young women in particular are pushing the boundaries. In the process they’ve created their own well considered and very distinct fashion.

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Many women in Tehran wear their headscarf way back on their head, certainly with enough hair showing to display their sunglasses, and likely much more than that. Some use special hair clips that create a fake kind of bun at the back of their head and let their scarf drape off. If you looked at them straight on you mightn’t know they were wearing a scarf at all. If you see them from the side the bob at the back elongates their head, giving them just the slightest sense of alien.

The manteau, a kind of mid-length buttoned-up tunic tied at the waist that ends up looking a bit like a short trench coat, is popular. You can see why Iranians arrived at this design. It’s flattering and fitted, while still covering all the required body parts. They come in all sorts of fabrics and designs with prints that wouldn’t be out of place in Glassons, or even Supre. Skinny jeans commonly complete the outfit, or leggings, or tight white pants.

Women pay a lot of attention to their face. It’s like their trying to make the most of the flesh they’re able to show. Makeup is thick and solid with blushed cheeks and bright lips. Eyebrows are chiselled into dark little parcels of hair that remind me of angry birds.

Special and surgical attention is paid to noses. Lonely Planet reports that 90,000 nose jobs are done in Iran each year. There are more than 3,000 plastic surgeons in Tehran who all help sculpt the apparently desirable ‘ski-jump’ nose. Colombia might be the global epicentre for butt jobs, but Iran seems to be it for rhinoplasties. I certainly saw more of the tell-tale nose bandages on the streets of Tehran than I have in the rest of my travels combined. Although, apparently, the bandages themselves have become a status symbol and it’s not unheard of for women (and increasingly men) to wear them even though they’ve no surgical scars to hide.

For me, observing the fashion here has become an early emblem of individualism and freedom-seeking which contrasts sharply with the conservative stereotypes the world has for Iran. If young women are comfortable pushing so clearly up against the clothing rules that the state has created for them, where else are they pushing that is harder to see? It also implies a difference of approach between younger and older, more conservative, generations. It remains to be seen whether there is also a difference inside and out of Tehran.

Tearing up Tehran

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Arriving in Tehran you could tell we were somewhere quite different. Many of the women joining us on the hop from Dubai changed their clothing before we landed. As we taxied to the terminal we past aging 747s, born of another era in aviation but still operating in Iran where economic sanctions have stopped carriers being able to buy new airplanes.

The airport was small when you consider Tehran is the biggest city in West Asia. Its fifteen million people sprawl over foothills of the Alborz mountains which separate Iran’s deserts from the Caspian sea. It feels like a big city, sure, but it doesn’t feel frantic, except when you’re midstream in traffic and a taxi comes reversing, full tilt, up a one way street.

It’s smoggy and traffic is congested, but the city streets are clean and there are fewer beggars than you’d fine in most world capitals. In fact, the leafy northern suburbs wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in Western Europe. There are neat palaces to visit, a gem collection that makes the British Crown jewels look impoverished, and fine museums showcasing Persia’s important role in history. And in little ways the city hints at the political and cultural quirks that have really drawn us to Iran: the cars are almost all Peugeot because a local manufacturing license gets around sanctions, there’s occasional anti-American symbolism plastered on walls, and, somewhere, hidden in plain sight, morality police crack down on women showing too much fringe.

This country seems full of contradictions. The twists and turns of its modern history suggest a penchant for liberalism, and fierce sense of nationalism that comes out as religion. Or religion that comes out as nationalism. Women here seem at once freer and more restricted than those we met in Pakistan. It feels more modern and more held back than I was expecting. I’m yet to decide whether the apparent contradictions are genuine, or just a product of our misunderstanding.

You can’t run facebook in Iran

Iran’s internet censorship means you ordinarily can’t access facebook, youtube, google etc. We’re pretty confident we will be able to wriggle free of the restrictions, as we did in China.

In the event we can’t you needn’t worry. We’re alive and there is no reason to hatch an elaborate plan to smuggle us out with false identifies as sci-fi film producers.

Blogging should continue as normal.