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How does an American man visit Iran with a Muslim Iranian woman?
July 15, 2010 3:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm a non-religious American man planning on visiting Iran with a Muslim Iranian woman. What precautions should we take?

I am planning to visit Iran with a female friend who is a U.S. citizen, but who was born in Iran and is therefore also an Iranian citizen. She is Shia; I am not religious at all. There are two major issues I'm aware of:

1. How do I present the nature of my visit?

To get a visa, I need to book a tour or find a person in Iran to sponsor my visit. Are there tour operators who will take my money and then let me loose for a week? Finding an Iranian to sponsor my trip may be impossible, but in case my friend could arrange it, what are the risks and responsibilities for an Iranian sponsoring an American tourist?

Should I volunteer the fact that I'm traveling with my friend, or should I keep it to myself? Should we drive to a large international airport instead of flying out of our local non-international airport, in order to obscure the connection between us?

2. How should a man and a woman travel together inside Iran?

As for our relationship, we are friends and are considering being more to each other. (If things go well, I promise to come back and ask for advice about the hazards of such a cross-cultural and inter-(lack of) faith relationship, so please save it until then.) However, she is devout, so there is and will be no sexual relationship between us. (Sad face, roll eyes, etc.)

We're both pretty restrained (some would say repressed; well, just about everybody says I'm repressed) and expect to have no difficulty complying with laws about physical contact between members of the opposite sex. We aren't going to forget where we are and start holding hands.

Is it inherently illegal or dangerous for us to travel together? Is it illegal for her, an unmarried Iranian Muslim woman, to take trains, buses, or taxis with a non-Muslim man? What about walking and hiking? Is it illegal for us to stay in hotels together (in separate rooms, of course?) Are there any precautions we should take, such as arriving at hotels separately or even staying in separate hotels? Even when we comply with the law, will we be in any danger, official or unofficial?

In general, any tips on how to behave in public and how to handle travel logistics to avoid giving offense or attracting unwanted attention would be much appreciated. I believe that whenever we are outside a major city, we will be in a place frequented by tourists. We plan to visit mostly touristy places, such as historic sites, mosques, shrines, and beautiful natural places. She will visit some family members, but to avoid awkward issues that she has not yet decided how to address, I will probably not join her.

I'm sure there are questions I should be asking but have failed to ask. Any tips on how to handle this as safely as possible will be much appreciated. My friend has visited Iran regularly since moving to the United States, so she is very familiar with local mores with respect to Muslim men and women, but she doesn't know anything about the complications attached to my being American and irreligious. She may also be imperfectly aware of shifting standards within the last year or two.

Oh, and one final question: I assume we will be safer if I say (if confronted and asked) I am Christian instead of a nonbeliever -- is that true? I could not credibly claim to be Muslim, but I went to Christian schools when I was little, so I could pass as Christian as easily as most actual American Christians could.

Many thanks for your help!
posted by dkh to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Rick Steves' subsite on resources for and experiences when traveling to Iran may help you.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:08 PM on July 15, 2010


I just returned from a 10-day tour of Iran as an American male travelling solo, so here's my advice. I'm not an expert but have been through the process and done plenty of homework. I dated a few (secular) iranian girls and we considered doing this as well.

Point of clarification: are you caucasian, or do you look middle-eastern at all? That makes a huge difference.

To get a visa, I need to book a tour or find a person in Iran to sponsor my visit. Are there tour operators who will take my money and then let me loose for a week?

Doubtful. But to get a visa you only need an itinerary, not a guide. You may be able to find a guide willing to give you more autonomy, but I don't know if I would take the risk. They are VERY strict with this stuff. My guide had to register me with the city police in every city we visited.

In the end, I chose the peace of mind of an all-inclusive tour, but I wish I had negotiated more on the price, esp. on the hotels (I wanted very cheap, but they booked pretty expensive places.)

Finding an Iranian to sponsor my trip may be impossible, but in case my friend could arrange it, what are the risks and responsibilities for an Iranian sponsoring an American tourist?

I didn't try this, but I understand it's very difficult unless you are married or family. I don't know that it's risky for them, but again, they take it pretty seriously. You will need to write letters stating why you would like to visit and they will need to write letters of introduction for you, I think. There are agencies that specialize in this.

Should I volunteer the fact that I'm traveling with my friend, or should I keep it to myself?


When would you volunteer this information? I don't understand the question I guess. It really depends who you're talking to. Most people on the street won't care, but if you're talking to the police you definitely should not just say 'we are traveling together.'

Should we drive to a large international airport instead of flying out of our local non-international airport, in order to obscure the connection between us?

I can't see that making a difference.

Is it inherently illegal or dangerous for us to travel together? Is it illegal for her, an unmarried Iranian Muslim woman, to take trains, buses, or taxis with a non-Muslim man? What about walking and hiking? Is it illegal for us to stay in hotels together (in separate rooms, of course?) Are there any precautions we should take, such as arriving at hotels separately or even staying in separate hotels? Even when we comply with the law, will we be in any danger, official or unofficial?

Trains, buses and taxis will be ok. Anywhere in public will be fine. Hotels will almost certainly not be willing to rent you a single room, but should be ok with separate rooms.

You need to be very careful here, yes I would say there is some danger. It is most certainly illegal in some cases and as a foreigner you won't be able to go under the radar. You will also probably be harassed, depending on where you go. I would come up with a cover story about WHY you are traveling together.

Feel free to ask me more specific questions, I hope this is helpful.

On a separate note, yeah, you need a whole bucketload of advice about cross-cultural, inter-faith relationships. When you do, I'll bring the bucket. :)
posted by milinar at 4:14 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've lived in the Middle East in the past, but it was in the much more "liberal" Emirates and there, I'm not sure that you'd actually get stopped and questioned about the company you keep. But in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran, you might have to be more careful. Maybe you should consider dressing a little more like a local -- don't stand out. For the hotel, if you stay in separate rooms, you aren't really staying "together"... you could consider checking in separately at different times, if you are really worried.

But maybe this overthinking things. I remember some Iranian student at my school saying that things there aren't as bad as the media portrays.

Maybe you can check out this guide from lonely planet. This guide seems really useful. For instance, I had no idea you couldn't use credit cards in Iran.

Or you could try posting a question on the "iran section" of an expat forum like this one, or this one. There is also this place, but it seems like you need an invitation to join.

Good Luck~
posted by joyeuxamelie at 4:15 PM on July 15, 2010


Oh, you can check out my blog entry about my trip to Iran if you'd like. It's not so helpful logistically, but it might give you an interesting flavor.
posted by milinar at 4:23 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


To get a visa, I need to book a tour or find a person in Iran to sponsor my visit.

I assume you've done your homework on this, but I've gotta say there was no such condition when I visited Iran back in 2000. I travelled around independently & there was no need to register with police anywhere, and nor did I experience any level of attention from the police or the religious police because of my foreignness (except what's coming below). I'm Australian, by the way, so maybe things are different for American citizens.

Even when we comply with the law, will we be in any danger, official or unofficial?

I can't speak for actually travelling with a woman, but I found it easier than expected to hang out with Iranian women. Having said that:

- One time, some women my (male) friend & I had met & hung out with were seeing us off at the bus station in Esfahan. One of the religious police goons (beards & dark green uniforms) came up & had words with the women, who apologised & said they'd have to leave now, or else it could cause problems for them.

- Otherwise, it was OK for us to socialise in public with Iranian women, although they did tend to be a bit guarded & circumspect, and were especially keen on maintaining a respectable degree of physical separation. Sometimes we'd sit around in parks etc almost as if we were separate groups who just happened to be seated near each other.

- Socially, the biggest problem seemed to be from teenage guys, especially Afghan refugees (according to the girls) who would apparently make obscene comments on the perceived sluttiness of the women. Nothing threatening there, more like loutishness than anything else.

Overall, there was a very low level but omnipresent cloud of 'surveillance', for want of a better word - ie the feeling that no matter what, we would never be invisible and there was always the feeling that somebody might stick their nose into our business at any time. Hence, the circumspection that I mentioned before: the locals seemed to know just how far they could push things.

And for what it's worth, many many Iranians told us they have no problems whatsoever with regular US citizens & would welcome them just like anybody else; it's only the government & its policies that they might object to, but they can distinguish between a government & its citizens.

I hope any of this helps. Iran is a fantastic place to visit & I hope you have a great time.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:07 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


@milinar: I don't look Persian at all; no chance of blending in. By volunteering the information, I mean if I'm questioned at the airport or by police on the street about what I'm doing in Iran, should I immediately admit that I am traveling with my friend, or is it better not to mention it unless they ask me directly? I'm just interested in avoiding as much trouble as possible. (Presumably lying outright when asked is a very, very bad risk, and if that is safer than being honest, perhaps it is too dangerous to go at all.)

Another factor I should have mentioned is that her father lives in Iran, and since she has never been married, he has legal authority over her, including the power to prevent her from leaving Iran and returning to the United States. We assumed there would be virtually no possibility of him finding out that she and I are traveling together -- she will visit him without me -- but it occurs to me that if there is some trouble at the airport, the authorities might decide to call her guardian. (Either as a courtesy or to ask, "Did you know your whore of a daughter is traveling with a corrupt blaspheming American?")

We don't know what he would do if he found out about me in such a way. She is not worried about being stuck in Iran forever, but she said it could take months to sort out, which is obviously not acceptable since she has a job in the United States that she needs to return to.
posted by dkh at 5:16 PM on July 15, 2010


This applies more to your friend and not you, but I wanted to be sure that both of you have seen the current US State Department Travel Warning for Iran.

In addition to advising citizens to "carefully consider non-essential travel," the warning provides some information on the specific risks faced by Iranian-Americans [emphasis addded]:

"Since 2009, Iranian authorities have prevented the departure of a number of Iranian-American citizens, including journalists, who traveled to Iran for personal or professional reasons, in some cases for several months. Iranian authorities also have detained or imprisoned Iranian-American citizens on various charges, including espionage and posing a threat to national security. Americans of Iranian origin should consider the risk of being targeted by authorities before planning travel to Iran. Iranian authorities deny access to the U.S. Interests Section in Tehran to dual nationals because Iranian authorities consider them to be solely Iranian citizens.

...

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to U.S. citizens in Iran. The Swiss government, acting through its Embassy in Tehran, serves as protecting power for U.S. interests in Iran. Neither U.S. passports nor visas to the United States are issued in Tehran. The Iranian government does not recognize dual citizenship and will not allow the Swiss to provide protective services for U.S. citizens who are also Iranian nationals. U.S. citizens of Iranian origin who are considered by Iran to be Iranian citizens have been detained and harassed by Iranian authorities."

I'm sure you've read this, and are making a fully informed decision about your travel plans. But on the off chance that you haven't... it's something to consider, very seriously.

If it's possible, try to obtain travel insurance with emergency medical and political evacuation insurance before you leave. Most of the providers I've worked with won't provide coverage to Americans traveling in Iran... which says something, as my consultants were working in Kandahar and Jalalabad.
posted by charmcityblues at 5:34 PM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


UbuRoivas -

Things are very, very different with american citizens! But your observations are basically spot on with what I saw. It may even be a bit more liberal now.

dhk -

I think you need to back up a few steps. You need to first figure out if you can even get into the country, and secondly you need to figure out if you can go without a guide - something I have yet to hear about anyone doing that isn't either married or has family there.

If you have a guide, it's a moot point, they will be responsible for you and your friend will be along for the ride just like you will. If you don't, then you'll need to figure out the logistics of traveling together, which will probably be risky.

Welcome to the middle east! This is one of the most frustrating things about this part of the world - the rules are vague and change often. Ask ten people and get ten answers, even in official offices.

RE: the father. Holy hell, dude. Don't mess around with family stuff.

Errr.... have you considered maybe TURKEY? :)
posted by milinar at 5:41 PM on July 15, 2010


@milinar: About the airport, it was suggested to us that an American and an Iranian-American traveling together would automatically generate suspicion that we had a political agenda, such as organizing opposition to the regime, or some other nefarious agenda. If we flew out of our regional airport, it would be obvious from the airline passenger manifest that we were traveling together, so we might be automatically flagged for special attention. I don't know if that's a realistic concern or not.

@charmcityblues: Yes, my friend is aware that Iran sees her as an Iranian, and living in the United States does result in her being questioned when she travels to Iran. She has even been asked point-blank why she prefers to live in the United States instead of moving back to Iran. According to her it's pretty routine, though, nothing dangerous as long as you don't say anything stupid.
posted by dkh at 5:49 PM on July 15, 2010


@milinar: She assures me her father won't be a problem when the time comes. She's quite serious about that; since she hasn't been married before, it would be impossible for us to get married without his permission. We're flying under the radar because of poisonous members of the extended family who would take the initiative against us. Not to mention that our relationship is not at a point where going through all that family drama is warranted yet -- we really are just friends with a mutual attraction who are examining the possibilities. (Did I mention we're repressed already? Add extremely rational and methodical as well.)
posted by dkh at 5:58 PM on July 15, 2010


her father lives in Iran, and since she has never been married, he has legal authority over her, including the power to prevent her from leaving Iran and returning to the United States... We don't know what he would do if he found out about me in such a way. She is not worried about being stuck in Iran forever, but she said it could take months to sort out ALONG WITH it was suggested to us that an American and an Iranian-American traveling together would automatically generate suspicion that we had a political agenda, such as organizing opposition to the regime, or some other nefarious agenda AND NOT TO MENTION We're flying under the radar because of poisonous members of the extended family who would take the initiative against us.

makes this sound like a very bad idea. Just not worth it the risk!
posted by en el aire at 6:53 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ughh, the typos... sorry about that.
posted by en el aire at 6:54 PM on July 15, 2010


What's so bad about claiming you're a Muslim? Or at least open to it? This will make things a lot easier for you. I can't speak for Iran but lived for a time in another Islamic state. It's a religion, not a secret club, and no one's going to hostilely accuse you of being fake Muslim any more than a fanatical Christian would accuse someone from the Middle East traveling through the Bible Belt of being a fake Christian.

Either way, Islam is an integral part of this world and a little research can help you quite a bit.
posted by iamck at 1:54 AM on July 17, 2010


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