A Muslim woman who was punished for wearing a miniskirt says she’s been heavily criticised for pursuing a career as a swimwear designer.
Tala Raassi told how she was sentenced to 40 lashes in her hometown of Tehran for attending a mixed party when she was 16 – but has refused to let her ordeal hold her back.
Instead Tala moved to the States where, despite speaking no English, she carved out a career in fashion, launched her own swimwear line and has just written her first book.
Tala was sentenced to 40 lashes after being caught wearing a miniskirt and heels at a sweet 16 party in Tehran as a teenager – but has gone on to become a successful swimwear designer
In 2012, Tala was named as one of Newsweek’s Most Fearless Women in the world alongside the likes of Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey – and she has now made it her mission to champion women’s right to wear whatever they choose without fear of judgement or persecution.
Tala, now 35, had been enjoying a party at her friend’s house in 1998 when it was stormed by the Basij, a militant group who considered themselves defenders of Islam.
When the group burst in, Tala recalls, ‘they didn’t find any drugs or alcohol. The only items they found were foreign VHS tapes, satellite TV, Mariah Carey and Ace of Base cassette tapes, and 90210 posters’.
Yet it was deemed evidence enough to take the teenagers to Tehran’s notorious Vozara detention center, despite their parents’ pleas to bribe officials and secure their release.
Tala at her family’s home in Iran aged 11. She now fears she may never be able to return to the country she once called home after speaking out about restrictions on women
Tala aged six. Growing up in Iran, Tala and her friends were well aware of the often brutal punishments imposed by the Basij, a militant group who considered itself a defender of Islam
‘They viewed me as a sinner, a criminal, and an infidel,’ Tala said of her first hours in jail. ‘We were treated like terrorists caught plotting to overthrow the government.’
The young group were handcuffed and told to complete a form describing how they were dressed, in Tala’s case a short skirt, tight top, nail polish and make-up – all of which were strictly forbidden in public.
‘This wasn’t the first time I’d worn makeup and nail polish, but it was the first time I was questioned for it,’ Tala said.
That first night in jail, Tala recalled, she ‘questioned her faith in humanity’ as she listened to the screams of girls in neighboring cells who were allegedly being punished or tortured for bad behavior.
Tala aged seven. She nurtured a love of fashion while growing up, but it was not until she moved to the US and got a job at a bridal boutique that she saw it as a viable career option
Tala aged eight in Iran. She said of her upbringing: ‘Women in the streets were covered, there were no mainstream boutiques, and school didn’t teach you fashion’
But her ordeal was far from over; after five days, Tala and her teenage friends were sentenced to ‘shalagh‘ – lashes – 40 each for the girls, and 50 each for the boys.
After being led into the room in a ‘dark building’ alongside her friend Neda, the teenager was laid on a bed and assaulted with a leather whip. The pain, she says, was ‘like a torture’ and left her unable to even scream.
Following the brutal incident – which left the teenager unable to sit properly for several weeks – Tala’s family decided to relocate.
They traveled first to Dubai and then to Washington DC – where, Tala admits, she experienced something of a culture shock.
Tala says: ‘If someone wants to wear a bikini to the beach and another woman wants to wear a burkini to the beach – I’m all for that. If that’s your own choice, then more power to you’
‘When I first got there, I spoke no English and I didn’t have any friends,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t really go anywhere, I couldn’t talk to anyone, and I was angry at my family for bringing me here.
‘But once I realised that there was so much opportunity here, I opened up to the change and that’s when things got a little better.’
‘I grew up in Iran where women in the streets were covered, there were no boutiques
Tala enrolled in language classes and got a job at a bridal boutique whose owner was Iranian, which was where she rediscovered her love of fashion.
‘I had grown up in Iran where women in the streets were covered, there were no mainstream boutiques, and school didn’t teach you fashion,’ she explained.
‘It was all traditional, you had to be a lawyer or a doctor or a scientist. I never knew that fashion design was even an option for me.
Tala has launched her own swimwear line, Dar Be Dar, which sponsored the 2010 Miss Universe pageant and has stores across the US – but her success has attracted criticism, too
‘[When I came to the US] I realised I could be whoever I wanted to be and I didn’t have to go to law school anymore.
‘I wanted to do something to empower women; to let them celebrate their beauty and not fear judgement or punishment for wearing what they want to wear.’
She has since launched her own swimwear line, Dar Be Dar, which sponsored the 2010 Miss Universe pageant and sells all across the US – but her success has attracted criticism, too.
‘There’s a lot of controversy because I’m a Muslim woman who designs bathing suits and everyone is very quick to judge,’ Tala explained.
‘They say, how dare you design bathing suits? How is it empowering? But it’s not about that. I design bathing suits because I love them, and that’s what I chose to pick in the fashion industry.’
Tala explained: ‘There’s a lot of controversy because I’m a Muslim woman who designs bathing suits and everyone is very quick to judge’
Tala says of her designs: ‘I design my swimsuits for a modern girl who has a busy lifestyle. The suits can be worn to the beach but also paired with jeans and you can go out with them’
A blue two-piece from Tala’s range. Tala explained: ‘There’s a lot of controversy because I’m a Muslim woman who designs bathing suits and everyone is very quick to judge’
‘Freedom is not about what you put on or take off, it’s about having the choice to do so. If someone wants to wear a bikini to the beach and another woman wants to wear a burkini to the beach – I’m all for that.
‘If that’s your own choice and that’s what you want to do, then more power to you.’
Freedom isn’t about what you put on or take off; it’s about having the choice to do so
But Tala fears she may never be able to return to the country she once called home.
‘I don’t know, with the political situation, if I’m welcome there anymore,’ she explained. ‘But a lot of my friends who live in Iran say things are changing so much from when we lived there.
‘When I was growing up there were no mainstream boutiques, but now Roberto Cavalli is opening a store in Iran. I’m hoping that, as there is more freedom, I’ll be able to go back one day.’
SENTENCED TO 40 LASHES… FOR WEARING A MINISKIRT
Tala describes the moment she received her punishment in Tehran’s Vozara Prison in 1998. She was just 16 years old.
‘Suddenly I felt the leather whip, drenched in water, lash viciously across my back. The pain was excruciating, and I was so petrified that I lose my voice.
Tala Raassi’s first book, Fashion is Freedom, is out now from Blink Publishing, £8.99
‘I could hear the whip whooshing through the air back and forth, and my back felt like it had just caught on fire. It was burning. I thought I was going to pass out. There were no screams left in me.
‘The woman whispered in my ear that she would be gentler, but that I needed to scream to make it believable that she was hurting me just as badly as the first time.
‘I couldn’t begin to imagine how painful it must have been for the people who didn’t receive the gentler lashing.
‘And i didn’t need to make-believe. It was torture. When the whip sliced my skin, I whimpered.
‘I was very light-headed, and all I could feel was an acute burning sensation on my back as the whip penetrated deeper and deeper.
‘Forty lashes later, I lay there helplessly. It was finally over. It was all over. Time had run together like sand. It was over before I could eve process what had just happened.’
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