• At 16, Tala Raassi was sentenced to forty lashes in Iran for the crime of wearing 'indecent clothing'. (Michael Woodward)Source: Michael Woodward
Iranian-American fashion designer Tala Raassi was just 16 when she was found herself in an Iranian prison and sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing a mini-skirt. She recounts the tense moments following a raid on a private party by Tehran’s religious police that led to her being arrested for ‘indecent clothing’.
Tala Raassi

4 Oct 2016 - 10:34 AM  UPDATED 4 Oct 2016 - 6:34 PM

Two guards stood like watchdogs in the doorway facing the corridor. I was reluctant to stand up, only to have them stare at my legs and judge me, so I quickly grabbed a pair of pants while they were distracted and pulled them on. I found my scarf and tugged it down over my eyebrows and up over my chin. I wanted to cover myself as much as possible. Other girls wore sports socks pulled up to their knees with high- heeled shoes or put on pants under their skirts. Looking disastrously mismatched, we exited the room. Despite my state of panic, a part of me realised how ludicrous the entire situation was.

A Basiji told me to put my hand next to Neda’s, and he slapped a pair of handcuffs on us. He tightened the metal teeth around my wrist, and they pinched my skin, but I was too scared to complain. Neda and I glanced at each other, alarmed and degraded, and quickly looked down as we made our way out of the house. I had never seen handcuffs in real life before, only in movies. It never crossed my mind that one day I was going to be wearing them.

Two government buses awaited us in the narrow alley outside Maryam’s house. They were white and army green— the colours of the religious police uniforms. Seeing my male friends loading into the bus wearing the same outfits they had attended the party in reminded me just how little freedom women had. By law, Iranian men were much less restricted than women in their dress code, but they still didn’t have free rein to wear whatever they pleased. Men were allowed to wear short- sleeved shirts, but not shorts, and name- brand T- shirts, but not ones with slogans on them. Ponytails and certain beard styles were also forbidden. The guys at the party were all dressed like any young, trendy European man— jeans, button- down shirts or sweaters, and nice shoes. Some of them had even illegally styled their hair and had funky beards. They definitely didn’t adhere to the official list of approved “non- Western” styles. But nevertheless, the Basijis were going easier on the boys. As humans, we weren’t being treated equally.

I passed by my parents as they continued to apologise and beg the officials to let us go. My friends and I were much calmer by this point than our families, so we quietly filed into the bus. I tried to catch my parents’ eyes, but they were busy arguing for our release. No matter how much they tried, the Basijis had already made up their minds. We would be taken away.

Seeing my male friends loading into the bus wearing the same outfits they had attended the party in reminded me just how little freedom women had.

Through the bus window, I saw angry mothers being held back by the guards. In the distance, some of Maryam’s neighbours and their children stood outside their homes watching us, while others peeked through their windows to find out what the ruckus was about. As the buses pulled out of Maryam’s sheltered street, about seven other vehicles filled with our parents trailed us. It was comforting to know that they were only a car length away. It gave us a glimmer of hope and turned our fear to anger; in a way, we felt safe enough to get angry about what was happening to us. Girls began speculating about how we would be punished. I tried to block out the horrific stories I’d heard about people who’d been taken away by the Basij and raped, lashed, and tortured. Hoda confidently reassured us that her parents would bribe the officials and we would all be released immediately. Leila disagreed and said that only those of us whose parents were present to bribe the officials would be freed. Either way, we all agreed that this would be over in no more than a couple of hours, and we were already thinking about how we would boast about our arrest at school the next day. So many of our friends had been busted and let go on the spot, or sometimes even arrested and taken to jail, and whenever a situation like that arose, they would become the centre of attention. Now that we were experiencing it firsthand, we felt like we were in the trenches with the enemy.

The two Basijis sitting in the front of the bus kept a close eye on us the entire ride. They turned around and glared at us every so often, to make sure we knew who was in charge. They chatted amongst themselves, probably saying things about how we were disgraces to Iran. The bus ride was very noisy, and it almost felt like we were going on a normal school field trip. But our paranoia and fear of the unknown hovered thickly above us. I couldn’t help thinking that this was a field trip to hell.

The bus finally passed through a large army- green door and stopped near a relatively small brick building, about two levels tall. The sign said “Vozara Prison.” All noise in the bus came to a sudden halt. I couldn’t believe where we were.

They ordered us to get off the bus, stand in line next to the girl we were handcuffed to, and stay still. My teeth started to chatter, and I suddenly noticed how cold the rest of my body had become. I looked at Neda and said, “At least I know we are stuck together.” As uncomfortable as it was to be handcuffed, it was reassuring to have my best friend next to me. Neda grabbed my hand and squeezed it firmly. I squeezed hers back.

It was already past midnight. The dark yard was semi- lit by lights shining from outside the building. Throngs of people of all ages sat and stood everywhere in the vast open space, amongst the government buses and cars. I couldn’t hear myself think as a cacophony of sounds echoed around me— people cried, laughed, and argued. Some cursed the government and the supreme leader, shouting “Marg bar Khamenei ” (“Death to Khamenei”), which was very common to hear among anti-government protesters.

I tried to block out the horrific stories I’d heard about people who’d been taken away by the Basij and raped, lashed, and tortured.

Peripherally, I could see Aria and some of the guys with their hands behind their heads, sitting along the side of the brick building. They looked more distraught than scared. Over the sounds of cars honking and zooming past the prison, I could hear some of the parents arguing with the guards. They were trying to access the building, but the door closed with a giant clank in their faces, and they were banned from entering.

The government officials ordered us to file into the building. Inside, the walls and floors were stark white. We walked through the glass doors, which slammed loudly behind us, leaving the ounce of hope I had left on the other side. Before we had time to process where we were headed, the guards told us to walk down a dimly lit white- spiralled staircase. The narrow staircase seemed endless— round and round we went. I don’t know how many floors we descended, but the facility was shockingly deep.

When we finally reached the bottom of the stairs, I looked around curiously. Only two wooden desks and a cluster of black plastic chairs filled the empty space. Photos of President Mohammad Khatami and some of his associates, whom I didn’t recognise, lined the wall. The men looked like carbon copies of the president. Arabic writing that must have been a surah (chapter) from the Holy Quran covered the vacant spaces of the walls.

We were told to get into groups of four, find a spot on the dank concrete floor, and sit down. I settled uneasily next to three of my closest friends. When you are with people you love, it makes you feel safe from the things that scare you the most. Now we were in the bowels of this infamous prison, at the bottom of a terrible pit, and I had never felt more removed from my family and the reality where I belonged.

I was so angry, and I resented the female officials. I wanted to know what made them believe that they were more faithful than we were.

Women dressed in black chadors, traditional cloaks that covered them from head to toe, handed us three- page stapled questionnaires to fill out. We were surprised that they wanted not only our full names, but our nicknames as well. We tried to explain to the officials that we didn’t have any nicknames. I guess they assumed we were prostitutes from the way we were dressed. They insisted that we write one down.

I came up with “Tala Bala.” Bala in Farsi refers to someone who is loud, funny, and flirty. My father used to call me that, but I quickly realised that it wasn’t the best exercise of judgment on my part to use it here. Irate-looking government officials stared down at me as I huddled on a cold prison floor in Tehran. This was serious. They viewed me as a sinner, a criminal, and an infidel.

Another section of the form required us to describe how we were dressed. I wrote down the way I was dressed now, after putting on Maryam’s clothing. The official didn’t accept my answer and demanded that I be truthful “…or else.” I knew from the severity of her voice that I had to comply.

They also asked us to write down the amount of makeup we were wearing and the colour of our nail polish. Wearing makeup and nail polish in public are both forbidden, but despite this prohibition, I used to buy the most fabulous cosmetics in Tehran’s boutiques. This wasn’t the first time I’d worn makeup and nail polish, but it was the first time I was questioned for it.

After completing the form, we were told to take off our belts, shoelaces, and any pieces of jewellery or clothing that could potentially be used as a weapon in jail. We were being treated like terrorists caught plotting to overthrow the government. I was so angry, and I resented the female officials. I wanted to know what made them believe that they were more faithful than we were. I was taught to trust in the power of graciousness and kindness, not acts of force and oppression. A female official directed us to follow her through a small metal- barred door. When I walked in, I wasn’t scared, but I was shocked by my surroundings and taken aback by the vacant stares and ghastly silence of the women already inside. I had heard many stories of people who’d been arrested and sent to Vozara Prison. This was going to be my chance, however grim, to witness what happens in one of the most notorious prisons in Iran.

Tala Raassi’s memoir, Fashion is Freedom (Affirm Press), is available now at all good bookstores, $29.99.

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