An Iranian Impression – True or False?

Before coming to Iran, we weren’t sure of what to expect apart from what we had read online and in Lonely Planet. Because of the name of the country itself (the Islamic Republic of Iran), we assumed everyone would be very religious. We also knew that women would have to wear the hijab all the time but we were unsure of how much hair they were supposed to cover. And finally, even though Iran is famed for its wine and vineyards near Shiraz, we knew that consuming alcohol in Iran was strictly forbidden by law.

So what happens in reality?

When it comes to the hijab, young Iranians can be very creative. Even though by law, women should behave and dress modestly in public by covering their hair, arms and legs, it is not always the case. Young Iranians are exposed to Western culture and media through satellite television and the Internet and don’t let the restrictions stop them, especially in modern cities like Tehran. In many places, women tie their hair in a very high bun and drape their hijab in a way that leaves much of their hair on display. The bazaars even sell fake bun extenders. You can see some examples in this photography project called Your Veil is a Battleground.

Martin pasquier innovation is everywhere Natalie corpuroglu startup weekend shiraz iran hijab entrepreneurs hacking the system

As far as alcohol is concerned, it is actually fairly easy to find & drink alcohol within the country. There is a large black market for alcohol illegally imported from neighboring countries (Kurdistan, Armenia) and many Iranians drink a kind of homemade vodka known as arak sagi, or “dog sweat”. Based on statistics available in 2011, every year around 60 to 80 million litres of alcoholic drinks are smuggled to Iran, an equivalent to $730m. “The relative ease of obtaining alcohol — and the vast quantities available — have led many analysts to believe that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and other elements of the government actually profit from the illicit trade, among other banned industries,” Memarian wrote.

3 Steps to Tap into Naturally Entrepreneurial Iranians

In a country full of restrictions, Iranians have found ways to stretch the rules and think outside the box, whether it is for the hijab, alcohol or through coding: let’s not forget that an application helping students to cheat during exams was developed during Startup Weekend Shiraz! All of these examples demonstrate their entrepreneurial mindset and expertise at “hacking the system”: this is a real cultural asset, that other countries don’t necessarily have.

So what’s next for Iran?

First, it is clear that as the country opens up, angel investors or VCs will be able to come to the country and support local hackathons: for example, we can imagine some themed/niche hackathons around education, health or even environment issues will take place that will solve real pain points for the country.

Secondly, if the government decides to embrace this entrepreneurial mindset, it could collaborate with hackers and makers to enable more government innovation. Hackathons could be used by the Iranian government as a way to bring a group of people together around an issue that needs to be fixed: by stepping out of the way, they could let people come together to solve problems in creative ways that they would have never been able to do and think of themselves. This has been done in other ecosystems, such as the US (New York) or India (Delhi) and has been very successful.

Finally, Iran could turn its “lost generation” of engineers into an innovation asset, as we suggest here. Exciting times!

Contributed by Natalie Copuroglu, co-founder of Secret {W} Business, a community for women entrepreneurs, innovators and change makers in Asia Pacific. She is also a freelance web designer and a co-curator for TEDxSingaporeWomen. Check out her comprehensive blog of innovation ecosystems and entrepreneurs from around the world.