Cycling as a woman in Iran can make even the least-fashion conscious person spend hours pondering their wardrobe.
It’s not forbidden for women to ride a bicycle in Iran but the law insists that every woman conform to the Islamic laws of hijab or dressing modestly, which makes planning a cycling outfit slightly tricky and discourages most local women from ever getting on a bicycle.
For you, the tourist, the dress code means your favourite pair of lycra shorts will definitely not be making an appearance! As a foreigner you’ll be cut a bit of slack on how you interpret the dress code but it still requires a significant change for most women from how they normally dress. Here’s how Friedel typically appeared while touring Iranian cities (with some practical modifications for cycling; a different headscarf).
Whether on or off the bike, you will have to:
- Wear a headscarf
- Ensure your arms and legs are fully covered
- Make sure your bottom is covered at least down to mid-thigh with a second garment.
Perhaps surprisingly, the dress code does not extend to your feet. It’s perfectly fine to wear a pair of sandals and many Iranian women do just that!
The only time you can relax and fling off your layers of clothing is in the privacy of your tent or hotel room. When you are invited to someone’s home, they will often invite you to take off your headscarf to make you feel more comfortable but continue to refrain from rolling up your shirt sleeves or revealing even a small part of your legs.
Forget bringing an ankle-length skirt for off-bike days. Only nomadic women wear these and their skirts are far more colourful and eye-catching than anything you will bring from home. Many women wear the chador, but of course this is not so practical for cycling and not necessary.
Get a manteau
Another popular choice is a coat known as a “manteau” which usually comes down to about knee-level. You can buy these coats everywhere in Iran, starting from about 150,000 Rials (approximately $15).
The manteau is wonderful for walking around town and will certainly help you fit-in with the trendy Iranian women who place a high emphasis on looking good. Beneath their manteaus and headscarves are the latest fashions; often skin-tight jeans, high-heeled boots and always lots of make-up.
On the bike, the manteau may be too restrictive. You’ll have to try it and see if it works for you. The safer but less stylish option is an extra long shirt. You can either make this a t-shirt and wear it over a second shirt with longer sleeves or get one loose-fitting shirt that will cover both arms and bottom. For your lower half, cycling with lycra leggings is a good choice, or just get a long pair of trousers and don’t forget trouser clips to prevent fabric getting stuck in your gears.
Lighter is better
When buying all of these things, think about the weight of the fabric and what the temperatures will be like when you are in Iran. You won’t be able to shed layers or roll up your sleeves easily so you’ll sweat more than normal. You want something that is going to breathe well and wash easily at the end of the day.
Any square scarf will do the job as long as you can tie it under your neck and manage to cover most of your hair, making you look like you’ve stepped straight out of the 1950s. Make sure it is securely tied. The movements of the bike and the wind from passing traffic can easily jiggle the knot loose. Safety pins can help keep things in place.
Longer rectangular scarves are another option but they’re harder to tie nicely for the uninitiated.
The easiest choice is a one-piece hijab that fits over your head snuggly and requires no tying. They’re not as colourful or fashionable but they stay in place and are less hassle if you haven’t had years of practice learning how to tie a headscarf like most Iranian women. You don’t see many of these in Iran but they are very popular and cheap in Syria if you’re going there first. An interesting UK company selling one-piece hijabs designed for sport is The Hijab Shop, and you may also find them in markets across Europe, in cities with a large Islamic population. For example, we see hijabs at our local market in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Other than the dresscode, there’s not a lot to worry about as a woman in Iran. Unwanted hassle and flirting from men is much less than in other parts of the Middle East (almost non-existent). If travelling with a man, Iranian men may only talk to your male companion and direct all questions about you through him. It will be assumed that men you are cycling with are in your immediate family (husband, brother, uncle). If this is not the case, it may be best to just make up a story to that effect.
- Clothing Advice For Women Travelling In Iran (written by cyclists)