Traveling to Iran -especially for first timers- might be a bit frightening at first. There are rules to oblige to and laws to follow that might as well come from the past. To us, ‘western people’, being told what to wear and what not to wear seems very oppressing. Although Iran is becoming more open and easier to visit, for us life in Iran is completely different from life we are used to. Even though you are less likely to be in trouble when violating the rules, following them is always a good thing to do. After all, you are a guest in Iran. As a preparation,, we listed the most important laws in Iran you need to keep in mind when traveling for the first time to Iran
Oppressive laws in Iran
When traveling to Iran it is useful to know in advance which rules and laws apply. As I said before, the local youth take many rules with a grain of salt and everybody knows how to circumvent the rules. That being said, it never hurts to know a little more background information about the rules. Better safe than sorry. During our trip through Iran we found out that the local youth learnt to deal with the rules their own way. You can say that almost everyone is a rebel in their own way.
Alcohol is forbidden
Iranians sometimes joke that everything is forbidden in their country. There are so many laws in Iran. And for many things this is indeed true. Alcohol is also strictly forbidden in Iran. Whether you are younger or older than 18 years, drinking one drop of alcohol can ensure that you are arrested or have to go through some physical punishment. But do not think that the Iranian youth has never drunk a beer or a glass of wine. On Thursday evenings and on Fridays (the Iranian weekend), the local youth massively pulls the mountains or the desert to make a fire, make music, dance and drink alcohol. Every Iranian knows someone who illegally brews alcohol and everything we drink -whiskey, beer, wine, rum, you name it- is also available in Iran.
Do you not want to run the risk of being locked up or lashed, but do you still want a beer? Almost every hostel and restaurant sell malt beer in all kinds of flavour we have seen several times. Maybe not exactly the same, but you can still toast to your beautiful time in Iran.
Smoking sisha is something Iranians love and what you will encounter everywhere. Unlike drinking alcohol, but also a social activity.
Wearing a headscarf is mandatory for women
Wearing a headscarf is indeed mandatory for women, but this has been interpreted more loosely in recent years by the Iranian women. So you see more and more women in the larger cities who show more hair than scarf. Headscarves are worn more and more loosely, lie somewhere on the back of the head and with some girls even long hair comes out from underneath. A black headscarf is no longer compulsory. You see women walking with the most beautiful headscarves in all kinds of colors and cheerful prints. It is almost a sport to have your headscarf match as well as possible with the rest of your clothing. Quite tricky, because everywhere in the street is the so-called moral police who checks for women’s clothing. More and more women are rebelling against the wearing of the headscarf, but until now it is -unfortunately- still compulsory.
The most religious places in Iran include Qom and Yazd. Everywhere in the country it is important to adapt, but here just a bit more.
Read all about clothing in Iran and what to wear in Iran.
Censorship on TV and online
Sex, naked women, jokes about the rules and laws in Iran, anti-Islam broadcasting, all this and much more is not allowed by the Iranian governmentn on TV or the internet. All TV programs are screened and approved by the government. If something does not fall within the rules, it will not be broadcast. In Iran, the government decides what the population watches. The same applies to the internet. Although the internet works fine in Iran -in most places- many websites are not accessible. For example, Twitter, Facebook and Youtube are blocked and you will not be able to visit these websites without a VPN. Also some Google tools are not accessible. Gmail and Maps do work.
How does the local population deal with this?
If after reading the information above you think that Iranians have never seen Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad or that you can not become friends with them on Facebook, you are wrong. They also watch the same -American- series and surf the web on their smartphones. How? By installing a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on their phone and/or computer and by hanging a satellite dish on their house. Although both are officially banned, you can see satellite dishes hanging everywhere. Even though laws in Iran block parts of the internet, the government now offers VPN. Yes, good old capitalism at work!
Homosexuality in Iran
Homosexuality is forbidden in Iran, so not surprisingly, gay people have to find creative ways to meet each other. The app Grinder -the Tinder for the LGBT community- is becoming increasingly more popular and there are several parks in the country where LGBT people come together. In that respect, too, Iran is not much different from the western world.
Cuddling is offensive
Don’t touch women unless they’re related or is she’s your wife. That is the law in Iran. Affection in public places is not allowed. We spoke to a man who had even been arrested once because he had an arm around his wife’s waist in the street. Especially in the big cities we saw quite a few couples walking hand in hand, but that’s as far as it goes. Old habits die hard, so it was something to getting used to. Often we were approached by men -young and old- who shook both our hands and welcomed us to Iran. Some -more traditional men- will not shake your hand as a woman, but lay their hands on their hearts for greeting. Wait and see what a man does before you reach out. These laws are not Islamic, but come from the conservative government.
Better get married when you’re in love
The law in Iran does not allow you to have a boyfriend or girlfriend. If you want to be together, you will have to get married. A large part of the Iranian youth, however, “just” has a boy- or girlfriend. In Esfahan we went with two boys and not much later the girlfriend of one of the guys joined. They had been together for two years, but her parents don’t know about their daughters relationship. His parents were well informed. If the moral police finds out that they’re are not married they can be arrested.
Many Iranians will ask you if you are married when you are traveling as a couple. We are not married, but we always said that we were. This is to prevent weird looks and uncomfortable questions. Later we decided to stop lying in casual conversations, but it’s a good idea to keep it up at accommodations. If you are not married as a husband and wife, you can not share a room. Iranians must even hand in a marriage certificate at check-in at their hotel. For tourists, however, this will not be so strict, because everyone knows very well that things are going differently in the West. Sex before marriage, however, is a no-go for most Iranian women. Even for the not religious ones. It’s hard to get married when you have lost your virginity to someone your’re not going to spend the rest of your life with.
Free accommodation? Also in Iran it can
Not only Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are blocked in Iran, but also Couching surfing is not accessible. However, couchsurfing is incredibly popular. One day before departure we updated our dusty Couchsurf profile with our itinerary and within a day we had a LOT of offers. Most offers were to have tea and to chat, but there were enough offers to host us for the night. Couchsurfing is forbidden which makes it even more interesting for Iranians to participate in. They really are rebels.
Smoking in Iran
Before leaving for Iran I read a lot about it is not normal for women to smoke in the streets in Iran. It’s not forbidden, but it’s definitely not common. Kirsten is a smoker, so at the beginning she avoided smoking in the streets, but later on we noticed that it’s not all that strange. Just don’t do it in a crowded street and you’ll be fine.
Don’t Iranian women smoke?
Of course they do! If something is not allowed or common there’s even more reason to do it, right? At some restaurants and tea houses with a rooftop or hidden terrace, we always noticed girls smoking cigarettes.. the rebels.
Getting a crazy haircut? Better don’t
For women, they are required to wear a headscarf. Haircuts for men are basic. Having a too extravagant haircut can get you arrested as an Iranian. Many older men almost all have the same style, but many young men look really hip. Not over the top though.
Which of the many laws in Iran do you find most strange? Or have you heard about other laws in Iran that have not been mentioned?
Want to know more about Iran as your next destination? Please read our article about backpacking in Iran.