It was on a November day at a crowded bus station in the West of Tehran, right after dark, that my obsession with the metro of the Iranian capital started. Underground women
I remember that night as one of the most intense moments of my whole journey. The long bus ride had tired me. The immense crowd made me feel overwhelmed, as it was the end of the day and rush hour just started.
In that state of mind, I was desperately finding the nearby metro station. With all those people and busses around me, it felt like a mission impossible. A kind man saved me. As he couldn’t make directions clear in English and I didn’t understand a word of Farsi, he walked with me to the entrance. I felt like the man and the metro saved me from a mental breakdown.
Of course, it would have been way easier to get a taxi, but with rush hour on its peak and traffic jams common, I wanted to be in my place to stay as quick as possible. The metro seemed to be the best option available at that moment.
So I walked down the stairs of the station with the hope I could understand the system and wouldn’t get lost in the immense network of metro lines.
Although I couldn’t speak a word of Farsi at that time, I found directions easily. Before I knew I was in the women-only section, going fast to my place to stay.
The experience in the crowded bus station was my first encounter with the metro of Tehran and the start of what comes closes to an obsession.
Confident as I was because of the first successful experience in the underground the day before, I went back to the station. Everything repeated it selves and before I knew I was in the women-only section again, going to the North this time.
The ride from the south to the fancy north takes a while. So I planted myself in an empty seat between a woman in chador and a young woman with the plasters of a nose job still in her face.
While I was sitting on my seat between the women, two young students started a conversation with me. They spoke English and wanted to know if I liked Iran, where I came from etcetera etcetera. As I start talking, the woman in chador next to me interrupted us when she heard I was from Holland. She smiled and said her sister moved to Holland and that she has been there. She spoke English perfectly and told us she worked as a teacher.
What started as a question became a group conversation about our lives, jobs and showing photos of our cats to each other.
Until they all had to go out.
A mother with her daughter had followed the conversation and photos and came sitting next to me. The daughter asked me if I had photos of a Christmas tree on my phone. When I showed them the photos another conversation started about holidays and celebrations. The mother showed photos of Nowruz on her phone, the Persian new year as I was searching all over my photo for more photos of weddings, birthdays or whatever we had celebrated in my family.
While I‘m chatting non-stop with the women around me the final destinations of the metro popped up.
In the days that passed, I took the metro frequently as it is the fastest way to go from A to B, but even more because I loved having the small talks in the women-only part. In fact, I made the metro as a destiny of its own without the need of going anywhere in Tehran. Spending my time photographing on the platforms and talking with everyone willing to talk to me. That is basically everyone.
Truth is that the metro of Tehran isn’t on the outside that much of a fancy attraction.
Except for the Imam Khomeini station, the architecture is mainly functional. The underground is just a fast way of transport as multiple lines connect most corners of the immense city.
What makes the obsession real to me is the part where the women are.
Women-only coupes are the first and the latest of every train. A line on the platform marks the difference.
What could be seen through Western populist eyes as the oppression of women in Islamic countries, is to me like a kind of relieved to be around women-only in a small space. Simply because it feels more comfortable to be around women when it’s crowded. And most important because this section of the train felt like being in a big real-life, friendly chatroom full of women.
Many moments of talking followed in the days I spend in the underground.
I spoke a woman who lived in Germany but missed her home country so much that she moved back, she was currently working in tourism across the country. She says she always happy to see foreign people in her country.
Another woman I spoke was on her way to the market, showing proudly photos of her adolescent kids. She was having dinner for them that night, I was invited she said with a big smile on her face.
There was a student who learned the Russian language. She was fascinated with the country. She went to Saint Petersburg and showed amazing photos of the metro stations on her phone. She said compared tot Saint Petersburg the Tehran metro stations were pretty boring and she couldn’t understand what I liked about them.
Another student whispered she would leave the country as soon as she was graduated. She said she was searching for more freedom. Her clothing style was outspoken and colourful. An older woman next to us heard the conversation and interrupts that the girl shouldn’t be unthankful. The girl rushed away.
The older woman continues that Iran has some problems, but it is still a good country she says.
There were women studying mathematics on their way to university, others feeding their babies, others on their way to their man’s grave and others drinking chai.
What all women had in common was a sincere interest in contact. While they were polite, there was a fearless attitude in starting a conversation. While talking they were open about their lives and aspirations. Little pieces of their identities became alive in the underground.
On the surface, women are visible while living their lives in the Iranians society like they supposed to do and all that comes with it, like dealing with the global sanctions.
Underneath the surface, the women claim their own space and they take it, going to reach their aspirations in life.
During all of the times I was in Iran I experienced the openness of people like I experienced this in the women-only part. People have always been polite, interested and most important non-judgemental in contact with me. In every corner of Iran, I experienced that getting in contact with people was easy and comfortable.
As Iran is a country where nothing is what it seems, with a lot more going on underground than is visible on the surface, talking to people is the most important thing to do when getting to know the country.
For me, this is clearly the cause of my obsession with being in the big, friendly chatroom; the women-only part of the metro. Being able to talk to so many women gave a glimpse to about their lives. Their identities and their position in society where nothing is what it seems. The women are living their lives as they are able to do, pushing the boundaries where they could or break the rules where they could break them.