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.
On the afternoon of the fifth day, the guards rounded up my friends and me, pushed us into a bus, and drove us to a nearby court. We weren't allowed to have lawyers or to defend ourselves. The sentence simply came down from the judge: 50 lashes for the boys, 40 lashes for the girls. We were guilty of breaking Islamic rules: wearing indecent clothing, having a party with both genders in attendance, listening to Western music. Some of the parents tried to negotiate on our behalf, even offering to trade their businesses for our sentences, but they were denied.
We were immediately driven to a small concrete jailhouse near the courtroom, where the guards lined us up in the hallway, boys on one side, girls on the other. Our parents were there, too, and they managed to slip some money to the guards to lessen the severity of our lashes. I don't think the guards upheld their end of the deal, though. I don't see how the beating could've been any worse.
I hated that my family had to hear my lashing; the police wanted our parents there to teach us all a lesson. The beating lasted for what felt like an eternity. In reality, it was over in 10 minutes. Those 10 minutes changed my future.
When I was released, I hugged my parents more tightly than I ever had before. I'll never forget that seemingly interminable car ride home. We all just sat in silence; my family simply didn't know what to say. When I got home, I headed straight for the shower and sat on the tile floor for six or seven hours, just letting the warm water run over me. I felt so dirty. I desperately wanted to feel clean.
But the fear was not over yet. Officials at my high school called that same day, demanding to know why I had attended the illegal party. I was terrified that they would kick me out and I wouldn't get to graduate with my friends. However, since I had only a few months left until graduation, the school decided to let me return.
In those first few weeks after my beating, I felt like I was in a state of shock, a sort of trance. I kept to myself, and I barely left the house except to go to school. The physical scars healed, but the emotional scars would not go away so easily; in order to cope, I just tried to block out what had happened. I simply wouldn't let myself think about it.
After graduation, my parents felt that it would be good for me to get out of Iran for a while, so I went to Dubai and stayed with friends. I had always planned to study law after high school, but in Dubai, a different idea began to take shape in my mind. I started thinking about doing something that would somehow celebrate women.
A few months later, I moved to Washington, D.C., to live with a relative. (I'd actually been born in the States — my family had lived in the U.S. for a brief time — so I had a passport and didn't need a visa.) At my new home in D.C., surrounded by American women who were free to wear what they want and think what they want, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I would become a fashion designer. Because to me, fashion equaled freedom.
I'd always loved sewing. As a girl, I watched my mother, an interior designer, sew beautiful pillows and curtains for our home. I tried to emulate her, stitching an array of cool outfits for my Barbie. (I couldn't actually buy any Barbie outfits in Iran since the dolls were illegal there.) I used the best materials — a swatch from my father's leather sofa, a snip from the bottom of my mother's mink coat, much to her dismay. Fashion had been a hobby for me while I was growing up, but in light of my lashing, I wanted it to become more. I felt that women should feel proud of their bodies, not ashamed of them.
Of course, I had everything going against me: I had no fashion training; I couldn't even speak English. So I started from scratch. I took language classes and studied determinedly each night. I bought a book at Barnes & Noble about how to write a business plan. Then I researched things like pattern making and manufacturing. I visited clothing factories, fabric distributors, and showrooms to learn everything I could about the industry. My family helped me out with money, and I also worked at a local boutique. Finally, I started designing my own line, with some fun, funky, off-the-shoulder tops.
Five years later, I was at a friend's party one night, when a guy complimented me on my top — a black cotton tee with a silver pocket and studs along the bottom. I said, "Thank you — I made it myself." He asked if I was a designer, and I said that I was trying to become one. His response: "Why are you just trying?" He became my first investor and helped me get my business off the ground. I named my line Dar Be Dar, which means "door to door" in Persian.
Today, I'm 27 years old, and my designs are in boutiques in Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Dubai. I also sell my clothes directly through my Website, darbedar.net. I make sexy bikinis, tops, and leggings, all by hand. This past year, I had a show at Miami Fashion Week. Now I'm planning to launch a T-shirt line inspired by the revolutionary movement in Iran. The line is called Lipstick Revolution, in honor of women around the world who are fighting for their freedom.
The punishment I suffered in Iran put my life on a different course. To this day, when I hear the adhan, I'm brought right back to the terror I felt in that Iranian jail. But now, with some distance, I can see that the experience made me who I am — and made me appreciate my freedom, instead of taking it for granted. One thing that hasn't changed is my faith. I'm still very proud to be Muslim and Persian. I'm excited to be pursuing my dream of becoming a fashion designer, and I hope that I can inspire, and maybe even help empower, other young women. For me, each day is now a dream filled with creativity, freedom, and safety. And yes, I still carry my Koran with me wherever I go.
Michele Shapiro is the editor of the Website drivelikeawoman.com and the head of communications and outreach at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.