I met Tala Raassi at a nightclub in West Hollywood. She was a friend of a friend. At the same table sat Marilyn Manson. The alcohol was seemingly unlimited. The club’s strict no smoking policy rapidly began to be ignored as party goers clustered around the open windows as the night wore on.
Within moments of meeting this charming, bubbly woman I learned that she had served time in an Iranian prison. Intrigued, I asked why. Her story is an inspiring one—and one that many young Iranians might find to be a common phenomenon.
Tala Raassi was born in Silver Spring, Maryland. At the age of 2 her family decided to move back to Tehran. American culture was always something she enjoyed. “I would watch illegal satellite TV—watching [shows like] Baywatch and 90210. I wanted to copy [their style].”
The inevitable conflict of living in a state-run religious atmosphere and life within a less than religious family created an identity complex. “I grew up in a post revolution-Iran,” she told me. “There were so many restrictions imposed. We grew up with families who had [under the Shah] drunk alcohol and partied. Then, I also grew up in a society where I had to cover myself head to toe.”
Growing up, Raassi had heard many stories of arrests. But like all strong-headed young people before her she believed herself immune. It could never happen to me.
One fateful evening this mantra was challenged. Raassi was attending a small co-ed party (very illegal in the Tehran of 1998). There were no drugs or alcohol, but there was American music (“illegal music”) and illegal male-female intermingling. An ex-boyfriend of the girl who organized the party called the notorious Basij—the ruthless military police—when he discovered he wasn’t invited. The Basij raided the party and began to make arrests. Raassi attempted to outrun the religious police guards, but she stopped when they managed to catch up to her and threatened to shoot her.
“I never thought we would get lashes,” she confided to The Daily Beast. “Normally, if you apologize, they will let you go. We were convinced we would never go to jail. In the car on our way [to jail], we weren’t taking it seriously. We were sort of laughing. I was convinced there was no way they would keep us there. Someone would pay for our release, and then we would leave.”
The group was taken to Vozara Prison, where they were sentenced to 40 lashes for the girls, 50 lashes for the boys, and would spend the next five days. Rats, cockroaches, shared toilets. Drug dealers, thieves, prostitutes. Tala’s voice becomes an octave more emotional when she describes seeing a woman in her wedding dress. Her wedding had been busted for being coed. The woman spent the remainder of her wedding night in jail.
Raassi’s group was kept in a small holding area in a narrow hallway in between the trash and the bathrooms. At the end of the hallway was a locked cell door with a small window—which they later discovered to be the torture room. “We would hear screams coming out of there all day. During the call to prayer, which happens five times a day, the guards would line us up. They would tell us we were about to be lashed and then make us sit down and wait. Then nothing would happen. It was mental torture. You had no idea what was going on. At night time you would hear the sounds of women getting raped. Sometimes they were raped with glass Coca Cola bottles.”
At the end of Raassi’s jail time (five days), a guard approached her group. Her name was called. She was then transported to another detention center. Raassi was ushered into a room where items from previous arrests were on display—evidence of indecency. A judge lectured Raassi’s group about how they had misbehaved, how they had broken the law.
“I realized my parents were never strict with me to suppress my individuality and expression,” she said. “They were strict with me to protect me from being in the situation I found myself in—arrested and lashed.” Outside of the courtroom, Raassi’s family waited. One by one, her friends were called forward to receive their punishment.
“You see your friends leave the room with bloody backs, and you hear your friends shouting out in pain. Next thing I know,” she said, “I’m in the room myself.” Her family had to wait outside—and listen to her screams.
“It’s not like getting punched or hit,” she said. “It burns. For me, it was personally, so insulting and disrespectful. The mental part was just as bad as the physical agony.” A woman covered head to toe in a black chador waited for Raassi in a room with two beds. Raassi and her friend were strapped into the two beds. A leather rod with a braided whip was dipped into a bucket of water, which was then inflicted on their backs. “There are different types of lashings,” she said. “I learned this in court. And in our case we were allowed to keep our clothes on. In some cases, they make you take off your clothes.”
Fashion was always a solace to Raassi. Despite the strict laws regarding chadors, she told me of how women of Tehran always had great clothes on underneath, the care and time women put to their hair and cosmetics. Despite the restrictions, women really do what they can to express themselves through their own personal style. And because one could be stopped and arrested at any moment for being “indecent” it takes the young women’s expression of style to a completely new level.
“Being a fashion designer is like being a drug dealer [in Tehran],” she said, “Everything is word of mouth.” But fortunately now, she has returned to the United States, where she has her own design label. She has designed bikinis for the Miss Universe competition. She has written a book. The ordeal hasn’t embittered her. She’s bubbly, she’s fun and she’s fearless. I asked her about the restrictive dress laws in Tehran and if it creates an internal conflict regarding her own swimwear line.
Raassi paused thoughtfully, and then responded, “Freedom is not about the amount of clothing you put on or take off, but about having the choice to do either. The last time I went to a beach in France, I saw women who wore hijabs, covered from head to toe, walking on the same beaches as women in their European-cut bikinis. Their freedom of choice empowered me. I found a new respect for women who chose to cover themselves in accordance with their religious beliefs. I also respected those who fearlessly wore bikinis. All of these women had made a choice about how they wanted to present themselves.”
“[I’ve navigated] two different worlds. From Iran to the fashion industry in America (as a swimsuit designer). To overcome the obvious differences was hard for me. I’ve fallen before. It was interesting to put it all in writing and get some form of closure.” Raassi’s book, Fashion is Freedom, was published in September. She said: “As someone who came to this country not speaking a word of English, to have a book published in English is a big deal for me.” She laughed proudly.