This might come as something of a shock considering the bad press the nation gets, but it’s totally possible to travel to Iran, even in the current global environment. The State Department may not think it’s a great idea, but you can still travel there. Regardless of the constant assault on their public image, most of the people of Iran are quite friendly, and if sand is your thing, the country itself can be stunningly beautiful, plus it’s home to thousands of years of history. Of course — and this bit will likely come as no surprise — there are some odd customs, quirks, rules and laws to keep in mind if you should find yourself traveling in Iran.
1. It’s Like ‘Footloose’ Revisited Over There
Iran is like an entire country that’s devoted to John Lithgow’s religious beliefs in Footloose. Western music is strictly forbidden; no tapping, dancing, head bobbing, or anything of the sort is allowed in public. The country used to have the best ballet companies in the Middle East, but things are a tad more strict since the revolution. Case in point, in 2014, a group of young Iranians were arrested and sentenced to 91 lashes and jail time for dancing to Pharell’s “Happy” in the streets of Tehran.
2. Retribution Payments For Murder
Apparently, in the Iranian legal system, when one person commits murder, it’s entirely possible to get off scot free if you have enough money to settle with the family. Usually, when these payments are issued on an official level, the price paid for murdering a woman is about half that of murdering a man.
3. Keep the PDA In Your Bedroom
Even married couples aren’t really allowed to engage in public displays of affection, but if you’re unmarried, just holding hands in public can be considered an incredible breach of etiquette. Touching between non-married, non-family is strictly forbidden, so don’t extend a handshake while there.
4. Strange Rules For Strange Animals
In Iran, they’re very opposed to any kind of dangerous sexual interaction. So, as a result, it’s completely illegal to have sex with a wild animal. But, you ask, isn’t that a perfectly normal law to have in a country? Of course! However, in Iran, it’s actually completely legal to make sweet love to a domesticated animal, though. That’s just good sense; you don’t know where a wild animal has been.
5. Headgear Is Mandatory
Yes, the Iranian government does legally enforce women to wear a hijab in public, including a rusari headscarf and manteau covering, or a full black cloak chador. It’s considered obscene for a woman to wear her hair uncovered in public (although some women in fashionable wealthier neighborhoods push take some liberties to this rule – they like to take cool selfies as much as anyone). Such offenses can make women a target for morality police, however. Even the mannequins in Iran must have their heads and curves “appropriately” covered.
6. Keep Out, Cosmo
Here’s a national rule that you might actually agree with (well, not the censorship bit – the vacuous obsession with fashion and makeup). In Iran, it’s illegal for anyone to purchase a woman’s fashion magazine like Vogue or Cosmopolitan. The authorities object to “images of women in provocative attire” and immoral content of a sexual nature. After decades of people crying about these superficial publications giving women a bad self-image, maybe it’s a good thing to see a country finally put the kibosh on these kinds of publications. Or maybe not.
7. It’s the Nose Job Capital of the World
Despite the ban on fashion magazines and the cover-up mentality, vanity is alive and well in Iran. In fact, the country has the highest rates of rhinoplasty on the planet – and not just by a small margin. They go through seven times as many nose job procedures as Americans. It’s not uncommon to see men and women walking the streets with bandages on their noses.
8. Just Say No, and Then Yes
When someone in Iran offers you something, the proper etiquette it to politely refuse at least once or twice before reluctantly accepting their hospitality or generosity. Other cultures have this circular dance too, but Persian politeness takes this to the extreme. It’s called ta’arof and it’s an important cultural practice of respect and hospitality. Even shop keepers or taxi drivers may play the game of “oh, no, please, you don’t need to pay me” but, of course, they silently expect you to insist and ultimately pay up. It may sound like a disingenuous game from a Western perspective, but their intention is to be kind, welcoming and polite.
9. Boundary Issues
One traveler who stayed with locals while traveling through the country said that the people’s hospitality can be a little overwhelming at times. They’re just looking out for you, but you can still expect to be mothered to a good degree as they’ll happily tell you to not go out when it’s cold or wait for your drink to cool. It’s actually quite flattering; it just means they care.
10. Expect to Get Stared At
This is nothing against the Iranian people; they simply observe different customs. From a social standpoint, Iranians have a much closer-knit society. Families live together for a long time, and they regularly participate closely in each other’s lives. Iranians are a curious, social people who happily apply these same standards to visitors. So, expect to have your oddness be worthy of a little gawking.
11. Not Every Iranian Is Religious
In spite of the global reputation the country has, there are actually some people who are ardent in the their distrust or outright distaste for the Iranian government. Though alcohol is illegal, some locals still enjoy a nip of the good stuff from time to time, just like in the days of American Prohibition.
12. They Want You to Love It Here
The Western traveler moving through Iran can expect to hear one question repeated over and over again: What do you think of Iran now and what did you think of it before you came? The citizens are very aware of how they’re painted on a global level and — perhaps not surprisingly — they’re eager to change people’s minds whenever possible.
13. Confusion Over Toman and Rial
The currency in Iran might throw you for a loop. The official currency of the country is the Rial, though prices or bills are often listed by Toman price. It’s a pretty simple conversion, though. Basically, ten Rial add up to one Toman. When your average dinner bill can get over two or three hundred thousand Rial, it’s just easier to break it down by eliminating a zero.
14. Cutting Ties
If you’re on a business trip to Iran, you might want to leave the suit and tie at home. There’s no written law against them, but there is an official guideline not to wear these symbols of Western business. As a foreigner, you might get away with it, but why push it?
15. The Hair Cut Rule
Iran’s Cultural Ministry in 2010 published a list of approved hairstyles to eliminate “decadent” Western hairstyles like ponytails, mullets, and spiky ‘dos. Men and women alike are subject to very strict rules about personal expression. Having any kind of weird or unorthodox haircut (God knows where that spectrum starts) is strictly outlawed, tattoos are banned, makeup is outlawed entirely for men, and too much makeup can get a woman in trouble.
16. About Iran’s Treatment of Women
And now for some really dark stuff. Though the vast majority of the country’s people are kind, caring individuals, awful things do happen in Iran (duh). However, in Iran when a woman is sexually assaulted, the onus of the burden is placed on her to prove that she actually was raped. If a married woman cannot adequately prove a claim of rape, she may be charged with adultery (which is a capital crime).