In late September 2016, Alex Reynolds wrote about her experience of sexual harassment in Iran. The young American, who writes a travel blog, Lost with Purpose, with her boyfriend Sebastian, admitted she had experienced similar problems in other countries, but she said she had not been anywhere where harassment was such a regular occurrence.
“For all I know, I could become an unofficial porn star in Iran in the coming days, hijab and all,” she wrote. “The shopkeeper and his closest friend stand up and pose next to us travelers, flashing kind, innocent smiles. The others, however, are less honorable. As one of the men snaps photos with the shopkeeper’s phone, the remaining two continue squatting. One of them, a potbellied man with thick glasses, pulls out a small camera phone and starts recording a video… His phone isn’t pointed at the group — it’s pointing at me, moving slowly and deliberately up and down my body, seeking out hardly-visible curves in my modest clothes. His friend, eyes flicking between my chest and the phone screen, whispers to his accomplice as they giggle and continue filming. I don’t speak Farsi, but it’s not necessary to understand a man licking his lips with a hand on his crotch.”
Iranians on social media responded with sympathy, shame and, occasionally, disbelief.
Reynolds went on to describe other instances: “A boy tells me to come home and have sex with him while my boyfriend’s back is turned. My boyfriend and I pose for photos with a man, then find that the man’s photos on Instagram are cropped to make it look like I’m on a date with him… Iranian boys ask for photos with me, then try to grab my bum or go for a kiss. I’ve dealt with far more aggressive men in the past, but Iran wins the prize for high-frequency harassment.”
In the interest of making her travels more enjoyable, Reynolds decided to alter her own behavior in small ways. She thought it was best to abandon the “American habit of smiling and saying hello to men on the street." Instead, she said, she decided "to stare at sweets in storefronts. Much more delicious.”
Speaking to IranWire, Reynolds said, “There were a couple of times in Iran when boys showed me mobile photos of their ‘girlfriends’. They'd flick through photo after photo of them posing with girls, and there was usually a different girl in every photo. One or two foreigners on occasion, too. Who's to say someone’s not doing the same with my photo now?” And the fact that it is so easy for people to manipulate, collect and share photographs and videos adds an extra level of humiliation. “It’s disturbing. Having the result of your harassment stored on a phone or posted online gives it a sense of timelessness, and a chance for more men to derive pleasure from it — from you — in the future.”
So why did Reynolds decide to go public with her experiences? “I've heard far more horrifying stories from other girls that make mine pale in comparison,” she said. “Their stories are what convinced me of the need to share mine. One girl was pushed up against a wall and grabbed so hard that she had a bruise to show for it. This was her fourth incident of physical harassment in four days — her first four days in Iran.”
Though sharing her story, Reynolds also shares the stories of other women travelers. “Another girl was invited to come and look inside a man’s shop. The man tried to corner her and prevent her from leaving until he had his way with her. Luckily, the girl was quite fiery — she took out her phone, took his photo, and shouted at him that she’d show it to the police, effectively scaring him off.”
And: “A solo girl from Hong Kong told me several stories…One time she stayed with a family (usually a safer bet), but the man’s wife had to go to work, and he propositioned the girl for sex immediately after his wife left the house. And his mother was still at home!”
In the end, Reynolds’ experience did not make her biased against Iran or Iranians in general. “There’s no way I’m turning down thousand-year-old history, mind-blowing architecture and design, subtly sumptuous cuisine, and some of the most hospitable people in the world just to avoid acquiring a slightly strange fan club,” she wrote. “Harassment is found everywhere — the wonders of Iran are not.”
“I’ve Experienced Worse!”
“Iran wasn't my worst experience, but rather home to the most regular occurrences of harassment, probably because Iranian men are bolder and more forward,” Reynolds told IranWire. "They’re a very forward people in general—it's quite common for people to come up out of the blue to say hello and ask you questions — so it makes sense that that would translate over into being far too forward with their advances and unwanted attentions.”
“It’s hard to pinpoint why,” Reynold wrote about the sexual harassment she experienced in Iran. “Perhaps the men are pent up from being repressed by their conservative Islamic society? Maybe I’m a more comfortable target because I look Iranian? My best guess: I’m a foreigner, and men here have this notion that all foreign girls are sex-crazed party animals.”
What kind of sexual harassment did she experience in other countries? “I've had men grab at my nonexistent boobs in African countries several times while posing for photos,” Reynolds said. “Men would catcall and give dirty looks when my boyfriend and I traveled around in Myanmar — I suspect because they thought I was a whore since I could be Burmese and was walking around with a white boy. Men in Italy were so persistent that I had to run away at times. Once, a man from Jordan continuously touched me and tried to kiss my body for the entirety of a several-hour plane ride. Men in Pakistan touched me several times—mostly the infamous boob brush or butt grab. The worst there was during Ramadan, when a taxi driver put a bag of food…in my lap, telling me to eat, and then proceeded to try and touch my crotch under the guise of sharing the food with me. I hope Allah holds him extra accountable for that ploy.”
And she does not spare her own country, the United States: “I am very convinced that the United States is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to harassment — I've had guys there follow me, grab me, shout at me, and throw things at me to get my attention. The catcalling there is out of control.”
Learning To Stand Up
How did her boyfriend feel when she was treated this way? Did he feel he had to defend her, physically or verbally? Did that make him feel nervous or vulnerable?
“He feels shame, more than anything,” Reynolds said. “He's ashamed there are men out there that think they can get away with harassing women, and ashamed that women have to be so much more cautious in what they do and where they go. He's realized being a man really is a privilege when it comes to travel. The issue of harassment wasn't completely foreign to him, of course, but now that he's traveling with me, it's much closer to home. He wants to protect me from the creepers, but more often than not I don't tell him about harassment until after it occurs. It’s often subtle, or happens when I'm walking around without him.”
Reynolds believes it is important for women to learn to deal with these situations on their own where possible. “It's a mixture of wanting to learn to deal with harassment on my own, and not wanting him [her boyfriend] to punch some random man in the face in my defense,” she said. She said this probably means fewer problems overall. “As a result, he gets angry when he finds out. He's upset that something has happened to me, and frustrated at his inability to act on it. But I think it's important for the woman to stand up for herself, otherwise it's just another instance of two testosterone-high guys fighting over their property.”
Not Only Foreigners
Are foreign women the only ones to experience this kind of harassment? Does it happen to Iranian women too?
Sima is an Iranian women who has been living in France for the last four years, where she studies and teaches art. Every year she goes back to spend a month in Iran, and she tells similar stories of harassment. According to Sima, men from every walk of life are guilty of sexually harassing women on a daily basis.
Sima told IranWire that during her last visit to Iran, a former college classmate invited her to go and see his art work. “I went and gave him my view on his work,” she said. “Then I was invited again. Suddenly he said, ‘Those glasses make you look so good. Let’s have some lips.’ I was shocked and did not know how to escape that predicament.”
Sima says there is a fundamental problem with the way Iranian men view relationships with women, at least in the beginning. “In Iran it is men who decide whom to pick. As a woman you have no chance to say yes or no,” she said. “The choice is not with the woman and it seems they think that they are even honoring you by suddenly violating your personal sanctuary. In Europe, the man says a few words at first and if he finds out that you have no problem with it, then he sits next to you and perhaps asks permission to hold your hand. With my experiences in Iran, it took me a long time to accept that if a man approaches you it is not necessarily in response to his sexual desires. But the moment an Iranian man approaches me I see it in his eyes that his aggressive hormones are guiding him.”
Like Reynolds, Sima used tactics, like deciding not to smile, to discourage unwanted attention. She says that when she goes back to Iran she behaves in a more “masculine” manner. For example, she said she changes the way she speaks in order to cut off even a “momentary pleasure”. “If I speak with the voice of a woman I feel that I am not being taken seriously, or that I am being looked at sexually,” she explained. “When I go outside the home, I do not wear heavy make-up. I am careful of how I walk so I don't attract attention.”
Mahtab is studying for a Master’s degree and has never traveled outside Iran. “We have become used to groping,” she said when I asked her about her experience of sexual harassment in Iran. “It is part of our daily experience, even at the university and by our teachers.”
Mahtab said her attitude to sexual relations between women and men has soured because of what she’s experienced. She says she feels defensive and doesn’t think a sexual relationship with a man is even possible. Once she decided to discuss the matter with one of her male teachers at the university. He told her he wanted to help. Instead, he sexually assaulted her. “He took me to a small room, put my hand on his penis and then forced me to perform oral sex on him,” she said. “He said it would make me at peace with my body and comfortable with sexual relations. Now I am totally confounded about what happened. I do nothing but cry day and night.”
Have they ever gone to the police? I asked Sima and Mahtab. Their answers were different, but they came from the same place. Sima said she didn’t trust policemen. Mahtab told me about another incident, in which a man groped her in the street. She complained to a policeman who was in the area. “I didn’t see anything,” he replied to her appeal for help.
Read more about Alex and Sebastian’s travels on the Lost with Purpose blog
Read more about sexual harassment in Iran: