When traveling alone, and particularly as a woman, one common question is ‘is it safe?’. With regards to Iran, I think anyone would ask themselves if it is safe, regardless of gender, due to the common perceptions of the country.
Concerning Iran, I feel safe there as a woman. That answer may be biased based on the fact that I am half-Iranian and I speak the language, but I do on the whole consider Iran to be a safe country to be in and travel around on your own as a female.
In Iran you will get the odd look and comment, if you’re a man or a woman, being fair-skinned, having lighter hair and noticeably being a tourist, as you would in most places. I am also half-Hungarian so I myself don’t look completely Iranian, with a different skin tone and different colourings to the rest of my family. Some people do think I am a foreigner as well. I do get looks on the odd occasion, but I don’t feel threatened or on edge.
There are the standard pieces of travel advice that go for traveling alone anywhere for example, don’t go down a dark street at night and keep your passport out of sight – all the regular rules for visiting any country.
Regarding Iran in particular, there are some other specifics that I think should be noted. Simple cultural aspects such as greeting a man are different to the West. Follow the local rules and don’t shake a man’s hand unless they initiate it. It is advised to avoid physical contact with a man when greeting them, but instead place your own hand on your heart. Be polite with the local males, but not over friendly, as to avoid any potential misunderstanding or misimpression. Standard procedures such as declining an invitation to a man’s house clearly apply here, unless a female relative of his would be there too. In general though, violence against foreign women is almost unheard of in Iran.
There are other more everyday procedures that can be carried out to make you feel more safe regarding public transport and eating and drinking out. First of all when boarding a bus or train, enter using the separate entrances for women. On buses, sit at the back with or next to other females. On the metro in Tehran, there are different carriages for women to travel in. I would head to those areas to avoid any potential unwanted touching, as the metro is particularly overcrowded and jammed with passengers.
When eating and drinking out, avoid tea houses. Men may approach you and it has been said that women who sit alone in tea houses have a questionable reputation in Iran. In restaurants, there are sometimes separate areas for women and families to eat, so it’s best to go to that side of the restaurant, if you wish.
With Iran being an Islamic country, it is obligatory for women to wear hijab. This involves covering your hair and body and dressing modestly and in doing so respectfully, I feel you do receive less looks. It also I guess, depends on where you go in Iran. Tehran for instance, is becoming more liberal and accepting of all different ‘levels’ of hijab, so to speak. Women are wearing shorter trousers, ballet pumps and looser headscarves. In Mashhad however, being one of the most religious cities in the country, you do tend to get more looks if you are dressed less conservatively. Not just because you may be a tourist, but just because local Iranians look at what each other are wearing too. You wouldn’t wear what you would in Tehran in Qom, the most religious city, for example.
That said, as a solo female traveller, stick to bigger cities where they are used to seeing and mixing with foreigners. The larger cities like Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz are filled with tourists. The last time I was in Iran, I heard lots of Italian and German for instance, and there were many female travellers.
As with countries in any other area of the world, you do have to be cautious and generally just wise about your decisions. The same applies here for the regular precautions you would take in your home country, but generally as a traveller in Iran and as a woman, I do feel safe there. You just have to keep your wits about you, as you would do anywhere. Be smart and stick to bigger places and you will feel safe.