Iran intimidates female players into wearing hijab, says exiled chess arbiter

Shohreh Bayat says she risks 'execution' if she returns to Iran after taking off the hijab at a chess tournament

MAIDENHEAD, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 8: Iranian chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat competes in a Four Nations Chess League tournament at a Holiday Inn on February 07, 2020 in Maidenhead, England.  Ms. Bayat, an arbiter with the chess governing body FIDE, was presiding over a tournament in China in January when a picture of her appearing not to wear a hijab circulated in Iranian media. Commentary in the press and online accused her of flouting Iranian law, which requires women to wear a headscarf when appearing in public. Seeing this response, Ms. Bayat quickly grew afraid of returning to her country, worried she would be arrested. She is now staying with friends in the United Kingdom, where she says she is considering her options, unsure of what the future holds. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
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In 2020, Shohreh Bayat made international headlines when she decided to take off her scarf at a chess tournament in Russia.

It did not matter that the chess arbiter — akin to a referee — was Iran's first woman in the game to hold the position of general secretary in any sports federation, nor that she was actually wearing her scarf when Iranian media said she was in violation of the country's dress code.

Today, Bayat lives in the UK and says the regime continues to employ the same methods to scare and intimidate athletes into wearing their headscarves while abroad.

"I think they use nasty tactics. First they condemn you, then attack you with a cyber army, then put pressure on your family," she told The National.

"They use every tactic they can."

In December, the Iranian chess federation repeated a move made against woman grandmaster Sarasadat Khademalsharieh — also accused of not wearing the headscarf — saying Bayat was not participating in the International Chess Federation (FIDE) tournament on behalf of Iran.

Khademalsharieh appeared at a Blitz Tournament in Kazakhstan without wearing the headscarf.

Pro-regime media also launched a campaign against Khademalsharieh after images of her without her headscarf were published, as was the case with Bayat, almost three year ago.

"In my case, there were official attacks in media but now the regime is more smart. They will not write official attacks in Tasnim and Fars (state media)," Bayat said.

A hashtag with Khademalsharieh's full name has been circulating on social media. In the associated posts, the chess grandmaster is seen with her husband, a well-known Iranian director, whom people accuse of having "very close ties" to the Iranian regime.

Sara Khadem of Iran. Reuters

Critics have said that Khademalsharieh's decision to move to Spain, instead of back home to Iran after the competition, was not out of fear of reprisal for taking off the hijab, but because her family is "well-off".

Iran has been witnessing nation-wide protests for more than three months since 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being detained by the so-called "morality police" over her dress code.

Ever since, protesters have been chanting "Women, Life, Freedom" calling not only for reform, but also for toppling the entire regime.

Bayat told The National that when she appeared during the first leg of the tournament, which was held in China, wearing a loose headscarf, the former head of Iran's chess federation sent her a message.

A woman holds a t-shirt with a slogan that reads 'Woman life freedom' during a football match at the Qatar World Cup. AFP

"He told me to wear a proper hijab. He said my photo has been published in the media and that it was not good."

This is despite the fact that many women in Iran do wear their scarf with their hair showing both at the front and the back, just like Bayat did.

"I did not want to follow his instructions. So the next day, I pushed my scarf back even further."

That's when, Bayat says, she returned to her hotel room only to find her phone full of messages from people about what she had done.

"Shortly after, I saw that my father had given an interview in state media that I knew he was forced to give. He said that I told him I would explain myself when I return to Iran."

Iran chess referee Shohreh Bayat wearing hijab looks on during the Women's World Chess Championship in Shanghai, China January 6, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. Lewis Liu/FIDE/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

The interview, which remains online, was published in state-run outlet ISNA. In it, Bayat's father says that his daughter told him she "respects the regulations" of her country and that the chess federation "has no involvement" in this matter. Bayat says she had not spoken to her father during those events, and did not tell him to say what he told the media.

That is the moment, Bayat says, she decided to take her headscarf off for the tournament's next round and seek asylum in the UK. She has not returned to Iran, leaving her family and her home behind.

"I never came back to Iran because I think now they (would) just execute me," she said.

Bayat says that since that incident, her father was fired from his job and hounded by security forces.

"There were many more problems for my family which I am not ready to share," she said.

For now, Bayat will continue to fight on behalf of the women of Iran through shows of activism. At a recent tournament, she was seen wearing a t-shirt bearing the famous slogan "Women, Life Freedom" that is being chanted in Iran's streets.

Iran has been executing protesters for anti-government crimes and other charges including "moharabeh" or enmity against God, a charge that in some cases carries the death penalty.

Updated: January 03, 2023, 6:50 AM