The first question people always ask when they see photos I made in Iran, is if it’s a safe country to visit. In special when I say I always go alone, without any tour operator. Although I got friends living in Iran, I do all of the travelling by myself. Indeed, Iran is an Islamic country, I’m a woman and I go to all corners of the country in local buses and trains, all by myself.
Besides of this, at the moments I was in Iran I didn’t speak any Farsi, I went to the tourist places only shortly and I spend most time walking with my camera towards whatever came on my way.
The simple reason for going alone was that I knew it was possible.
People react surprised hearing me say that I experienced Iran as one of the safest countries to travel alone as a woman and with my camera.
Always, always and always people stay quiet, as soon as they realise I’m serious. The question marks appear in their faces. Next, the speculation comes in, then they say it out loud: ‘how is it possible I got the image of a hostile country, while you experienced the country so safe? ‘
Well, there are actually two main explanations and they are both related to Iranian politics. There are many reasons more, but to me, these are the major ones that explain a lot about the difference between the Western view of Iran and the safety situation as a foreigner in Iran.
The first thing to realise is that media coverage is the exception of daily life. You don’t see daily life when you see exceptions. And you don’t know what you’re not able to see.
Seeing the shouting of Iranian politicians towards the USA, talking about ‘the axes of evil’ back in the days and screaming about potential terrorist and presumed nuclear weapons doesn’t show a romantic Iranian fairy tale in the media. What you actually see is the covering of a political battle based on power and fear. By far it doesn’t represent the Iranian daily life. It represents part of the politics; global politics.
The mind trap in the media covering of everything that is exceptional, is that hearing and seeing endless messages about the on-going political power battle becomes the dominant view available.
What you hear, see or read the most, becomes ‘the truth’. You’re primed to this.
In special when there are less other views available. This ‘truth’ becomes the reference for everything that is Iranian.
The most heard image of Iran as an unsafe place for Western people is born. Actually, the image that is created is a kind of scary one, something you don’t want to be part of. So you stay away and the image –let’s name it a stereotype- of Iran as an unsafe and hostile place remains solid.
Honestly, I think this is only a minor reason. Thinking one-dimensional is one thing, but how is it possible that Iran is indeed for visitors a safe country to visit? How can the violent words of the political power battle exist next to the friendly, welcoming society?
Mind the gap
The second reason and the most valuable lesson I learned about Iranian politics lies in the gap between politics and society.
Let me explain this clearly. For people growing up in a Western country, a direct democratic system is what we experience as the main political concept. Direct democracy is what we price as the ‘normal’ system. A system that represents every citizen and where the majority of votes will bring leadership. All within equal concepts. Human rights are respected for everyone. The system is based on honesty.
For example; direct democracy from a Dutch perspective means that the main voting process takes place every four years. A list of parties and names of representatives of the party are available. You choose the party and person that represent your thoughts and values. The party with the most votes becomes the leading in the government. They create a coalition and represent a prime minister. The 4 years voting process takes places on national level and smaller, local governmental levels. Meaning that in those 4 years Dutch people have the ability to vote multiple times for people who represent their thoughts and values in political situations.
What I would like you to understand is not the function of Dutch democracy, but how small the gap is between politics and society in a Western country. The decisions made by the government are an effect of the voting of society, who’s able to vote multiple times. There is a pretty direct link between decision making of the government and the voting behaviour of society. The government represents society as best as it can be.
Democracy is a frame and not at all a single concept, let that be clear. How democracy is taking place in a country differs. The democratic system of Sweden is different compared to Spain or Canada.
Still, what all Western democratic governments have in common is a pretty direct representation of the society.
In other words, the gap between society and politics in Western countries is small. The ‘voice’ of the government is the ‘voice’ of the society, or at least it comes pretty close.
There’s a little bit more political knowledge needed to make my point clear; now about Iran.
Iran is since the revolution of 1979 an Islamic republic. In 1979 the Islamic movement under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini took over the power from the Shah. Meaning that the Ayatollah became the represented of the state, currently Ayatollah Khamenei. The Islamic leadership of the Ayatollah and the council rule the country by Islamic law. A leadership that is solid since the first years after the revolution and can’t be changed by any voting process.
Next to the Islamic system there’s a democratic system in which citizens vote every four years for a new president of the government. Right now (2019) president Rohani is in charge. He’s leading the country, but the final decision-making is up to the Islamic system. In fact, any decision by president Rohani can and will be overruled by the Islamic –solid- part of the government. This will happen when Rohani’s decision making is not according to Islamic law.
The system shows that the relationship between politics and society is arranged based on the Islamic leadership of the Ayatollah and his council. Indeed; the solid, not changeable part of the government of Iran. The influence that Iranian people have comes from the chosen government. Indeed, the part of the government that has not the final decision. The thoughts and values of the government representing Iranian society are not the final step in the decision-making.
The gap between society and politics in Iran is bigger compared to Western countries. Meaning that what the government does or represent doesn’t have to be the representation of society.
In fact, the decision making of the government could be in theory exactly the opposite of society. Caused by the solid part of the government.
Many Western people automatically overlook this difference. The direct democratic system has become normal for all Western countries. A ‘normal’ most people are not even aware of, the blueprint in many peoples brain. And while a lot of people know that countries can have a different political structure, they don’t seem to realise what this means for the daily life of those countries. They do not realize that society can be different than the acts and thoughts of the government.
In what I experienced, Iranian people are well aware of the gap between politics and society. The wider gap –compared to Western countries- between politics and society has become the ‘normal’ for Iran. The government doesn’t represent everyone’s values and thoughts as I realised in the times I was in Iran.
Even in conversations about America, many Iranian people I met are well aware that it’s the government of the country that wants sanctions for Iran, not the American people.
This gap is what most Western people overlook when asking the question of how Iran can be a safe country to visit. They don’t realise that a country with a solid part of the government can have a society with different thoughts and values.
As a foreign visitor you will mostly encounter the part of Iran that is a lot less in the news; the Iranian society. And indeed the Iranian society is welcoming, friendly and warm, making visiting Iran as a foreigner very pleasant and safe.
In short: safe travels in Iran are possible because the political power battle -known from the headlines- is not the story of the daily life in Iran and because of the wider gap between politics and society caused by a different political system compared to Western countries.
To me, the most valuable lesson I learned from Iranian politics is the meaning of the wider gap between politics and society. Showing that underneath all the media coverings of Iran is the beautiful welcome of the Iranian society.