Sentenced to 40 lashes for the crime of wearing a miniskirt, Tala Raassi on how she left a strict government for freedom through fashion
Many women don’t have to think twice about what they wear on a daily basis. However, in some parts of the world, this simple freedom is taken away from us. I grew up in Iran, a nation infamous for using brutal methods to maintain strict Islamic values, and when I was 16 years old I was arrested and sentenced to 40 lashes. The crime? Wearing a mini skirt at a private mixed-gender party and listening to western music - doing the simple stuff that any teenager would experiment with around the world.
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Seeking freedom and expressing my individuality eventually put me behind bars. Iran is a risky place to be different, and people are often victimised for their beliefs. As I learned the hard way, from the end of a whip, the attitude toward freedom of expression was ruthless. As I got older and more fascinated by fashion, I wanted to showcase my individuality through my style, but found myself clashing with the values and constraints of others. I would watch TV shows like Baywatch and Beverly Hills 90210 on illegal satellite and wanted to follow the trends those kids were following but there was one major problem - I lived under a strict government.
When the Islamic State won the Iranian Revolution in 1979, alcohol and mixed-gender parties banned. After these bans and restrictions a secret generation of rock stars was born, but only behind closed doors. People had elaborate bars and dance floors in their homes to keep these parties private. Women also lost their battle for gender equality and their status shifted drastically. Exposing hair and skin was viewed as too Western for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Women could no longer appear in public without being covered, and the government viewed the hijab as a way to protest the West and its ideals. Iranian women had been among the most fashionable people in the world and it was a travesty to take that away from them.
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Wearing the Hijab ultimately comes down to religious affiliation and, for some women, personal beliefs. There are many Muslim women who wear the veil, even when they aren’t forced to, because that’s how they choose to express their faith - and more power to them I say, for standing up for what they truly believe in. However, after the revolution in Iran, the veil developed into a symbol of Iranian women’s limited freedom, and eventually it affected their identity as whole.
When I left Iran I was sad. I love my country, its people, the beautiful culture and fascinating history. But when I arrived in the US, I saw women who wore hijabs, covered from head to toe, walking on the same beaches as women who frolicked around in their European-cut bikinis. Their freedom of expression empowered me. I found a new respect for women who covered by choice for religious reasons they strongly believed in. They didn’t have to fear government punishment for not wearing the veil. I also respected those who wore bikinis in a conservative country. There is something very powerful about standing up for your beliefs, even if you’re in the minority. I knew I needed to find a way to celebrate that co-existence, because it suddenly clicked for me that fashion was a form of freedom.
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Fashion is not about the amount of clothing you put on or take off; it’s about having the choice to do so. As I design swimwear, I am forever grateful to be able to have the choice and opportunity, to not only wear what I desire but also having the ability to use my creativity in a way that celebrates the beauty of women. Many fashion designers pursue their careers because of their love of the rich kaleidoscopes of textures, patterns, colors, and shapes. Others, like myself, are also inspired by an event or a specific purpose that brings meaning to their designs. I seek to spread a broader message that ‘Fashion is Freedom.’
Fashion is Freedom by Tala Raassi is out now, £8.99, Blink Publishing