Wild Frontiers' Mark Steadman recently undertook some guide training in Iran, and wasn't surprised to find so many women in attendance. Here he explains why, for many of us, our perceptions of women's place in Iranian society are misplaced.
When WF asked me to manage a Tour Leader workshop for my Iranian colleagues, I had mixed emotions; privileged to be able to share my knowledge and experience with my Iranian friends – but at the same time sad that I may not be able to visit this fascinating place so often.
Having regularly led trips to Iran since 2006, I’ve got to know the Iranian travel industry - and some of its players - fairly well. Iran has a long-established tourism industry dealing with both outbound (Iranian) and inbound travellers.
Considering Iran’s vast cultural and natural attractions it’s no surprise that many travel operators work in specialist areas such as archaeology, culture, nature and mountaineering. What may be surprising, though, is that many of these operators are almost exclusively staffed by women. WF’s agent in Tehran employs around 20 women in the office – vastly outnumbering the men. So, being familiar with tourism in Iran, I was not at all surprised that the majority of guides attending my Tour Leader training workshops were female.
Tour Guides in Iran are passionate, well informed and proudly Persian. They also have a wickedly dry sense of humour, when you get to know them. Tour Guides are acutely aware of the misconceptions about Iran and its people and most have never experienced life without sanctions. As guides, most are surprisingly open and keen to dispel the myths and show you what Iran is really like. Working with female guides in Iran is particularly rewarding as female tourists in the group (usually the majority) get an extra dimension with these personal insights provided by their guides.
Women in Iranian Society
One of the many misconceptions about Iran is the position of women in society. Whilst women are not legally equal to men, and the Islamic dress code is observed reluctantly by most, women do manage to play a prominent role in Iranian society. There are actually more women than Mullahs in the Iranian parliament and more women than men attending university. Despite some universities excluding women from studying certain subjects (during the Ahmadinejad years in particular) currently around 70% of science, technology and engineering graduates are women. Iranian women drive cars, run their own taxi firms and direct movies.
Iranians themselves also love to travel internally – weekends and holidays sees the country’s scenic and cultural attractions come alive with friendly, picnicking Iranian families. Mixed groups of young people - friends, boyfriends and girlfriends – spend their holidays socialising together by travelling, camping, or trekking. It’s always a highlight to be in the Iranian countryside on a Friday, when the mosque is certainly not the most popular place to be for most Iranians.
Travel is such a powerful tool in changing opinions and developing understanding between cultures. Nowhere is this more relevant than in Iran, where almost every traveller leaves with a completely different perception of the country to the one they arrived with.