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April 7, 2010

How I Survived 40 Lashes

The crime? Wearing a miniskirt — in the privacy of a friend's home — in Iran. As protesters increasingly take to the streets to oppose the oppressive regime, Raassi, now a fashion designer in the U.S., describes the punishment that changed her life.

designer tala raassi

Fashion designer Tala Raassi poses for a portrait in Vienna, Virginia, on Monday, February 5, 2010.

Photo Credit: Melissa Golden/Redux

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There’s a memory that has defined my life: I'm standing in line in a long, dark hallway, handcuffed to a friend, while listening to the horrifying sound of two other friends screaming out in pain. I'm in a jail in Iran's capital, Tehran, and I'm about to be served my punishment: 40 lashes. My friends emerge from a room down the hall, tears streaming down their faces and blood staining the backs of their shirts. I can barely breathe as I wait for the guards to call my name. Finally, it's my turn. My friend and I, still cuffed, enter the torture room together.

Two expressionless, middle-aged female guards, each dressed in a chador, or long black robe, remove our cuffs, then instruct us to lie facedown on a pair of bare mattresses. We will be lashed on our backs. The guards grab two black leather whips and dip them in water, to make the lashes sting. I turn my head and see them raise the whips high in the air, then I squeeze my eyes tight, terrified. The first of 40 lashes comes down hard across my back. I feel a shock of searing pain. I'm wearing a cotton T-shirt, which you'd think would be preferable to wearing nothing at all, but I soon learn that it's actually worse. As the lashes come down one after another, the T-shirt starts to stick to the cuts on my back; the whip pulls the shirt away from the welts after each lashing, intensifying the pain. I keep thinking, I can't believe this is happening to me. I'm a good student; I come from a great family. I'm not a criminal.

The worst part is knowing that my family members, who are sitting right outside this room, can hear the lashing. The emotional pain is almost worse than the physical pain.

It all started five days earlier, the day of my 16th birthday. My Sweet Sixteen began as it should have: sweetly. Two of us drove to a good friend's house for my party. I was wearing what any traditional young Iranian woman would wear: a scarf over my hair, a black coat, and pants underneath my skirt. When I arrived at my friend's house, I shed my layers, wearing just a black T-shirt and miniskirt. There were about 30 friends at the party, male and female; we listened to music and chatted. It was innocent fun, no alcohol or drugs.

Without warning, not even a knock, the religious police — government-funded groups that enforce Islamic morality — threw open the door and started shouting. It's illegal in Iran to wear "indecent" clothes like miniskirts, to listen to music if it's not approved by the government, and to party with the opposite sex — although people hold gatherings like this in the privacy of their homes all the time. (We learned later that a guy who hadn't been invited to the party had reported us, to get revenge; he thought the party would simply get shut down.) I panicked and ran out the back door with a friend, which is the worst possible thing we could have done. But I was scared; the religious police, with their long, dark beards, are notoriously brutal.

My friend and I fled out into the street; we knocked on neighbors' doors, looking for a place to hide. The officers followed us, shouting. When they yelled, "Stop or we will shoot you!", I obeyed, because I knew they would carry out that threat. A policeman walked up behind me and swung the butt of his gun against my back so hard that I fell to the ground. Then the officers dragged me back to my friend's house, where the police searched all of our bags and pockets. One policeman found my Koran, which I always carried with me; it made me feel safe. He hurled it at my face and asked if I knew what the Koran meant. (In his mind, it wasn't possible to wear fashionable clothing and also have faith.) Then he started rapping me on the head with his pen, before handcuffing me to a friend and shoving everyone into a van.

The police drove us to a local jail, then separated the boys and girls, throwing my 15 girlfriends and me into a barren, rat-infested room — no chairs, no beds, just a cold concrete floor. I looked around and saw a pregnant woman and a woman with a baby, along with several other sullen young women. One woman had clearly been plucked straight from her wedding; she sat quietly on the floor in her flowing white dress. I wondered what she had done "wrong."

We stayed overnight there on the floor, with no food or water. We had no idea what would happen to us, or how long we would have to remain there. My friends and I kept mostly to ourselves, trying not to attract any attention. We could hear rats crawling on the floor and screams from down the hall. If we needed to use the bathroom, we had to ask a guard's permission. There were squat toilets right out in the hallway, and no sinks. One woman informed us that an inmate had been raped with a Coke bottle by other prisoners. I was terrified that this might be my fate.

The next day, my mother arrived with some of the other moms, and I felt overjoyed to see her. She brought my favorite meal: rice and kebabs. But it wasn't exactly a happy feast. As my friends and I ate, all eyes were on us. The other women in our cell were hungry, too.

Two days turned into three, then four. Every day during adhan, the Islamic call to prayer that occurs three times a day, the guards would come and bark at us to line up and prepare to be lashed. We'd stand there for 40 minutes, but they never delivered on that threat. I'd always loved the adhan and found it beautiful, but that week, I came to dread it.


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