An Iranian chess referee says she is frightened to return home after she was criticized online for not wearing the appropriate headscarf during an international tournament.
Currently the chief adjudicator at the Women’s World Chess Championship held in Russia and China, Shohreh Bayat says she fears arrest after a photograph of her was taken during the event and was then circulated online in Iran.
“They are very sensitive about the hijab when we are representing Iran in international events and even sometimes they send a person with the team to control our hijab,” Bayat told CNN Sport in a phone interview Tuesday.
The headscarf, or the hijab, has been a mandatory part of women’s dress in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution but, in recent years, some women have mounted opposition and staged protests about headwear rules.
Bayat said she had been wearing a headscarf at the tournament but that certain camera angles had made it look like she was not.
“If I come back to Iran, I think there are a few possibilities. It is highly possible that they arrest me […] or it is possible that they invalidate my passport,” added Bayat.
“I think they want to make an example of me.”
‘A very hard situation’
The photographs were taken at the first stage of the chess championship in Shanghai, China, but Bayat has since flown to Vladivostok, Russia, for the second leg between Ju Wenjun and Aleksandra Goryachkina.
She was left “panicked and shocked” when she became aware of the reaction in Iran after checking her phone in the hotel room.
The 32-year-old said she felt helpless as websites reportedly condemned her for what some described as protesting the country’s compulsory law.
Subsequently, Bayat has decided to no longer wear the headscarf.
“I’m not wearing it anymore because what is the point? I was just tolerating it, I don’t believe in the hijab,” she added.
“People must be free to choose to wear what they want, and I was only wearing the hijab because I live in Iran and I had to wear it. I had no other choice.”
Bayat says she sought help from the country’s chess federation. She says the federation told her to post an apology on her social media channels.
She agreed under the condition that the federation would guarantee her safety but she said they refused.
“My husband is in Iran, my parents are in Iran, all my family members are in Iran. I don’t have anyone else outside of Iran. I don’t know what to say, this is a very hard situation,” she said.
CNN contacted the Iranian Chess Federation on Tuesday but has yet to receive a response.
‘She will have our support’
FIDE, the international federation for chess, has provided support to Bayat saying it leaves “total freedom to the individual” when it comes to religious symbols or clothing.
However, due to the law being enforced by the Iranian government, FIDE said the situation escapes its influence.
“In FIDE we respect all cultures, but above everything, we respect the individual’s freedom of choice,” FIDE said in a statement sent to CNN.
“And it is solely a decision of Ms. Bayat: wearing or not the headscarf is ultimately her choice, which we will duly respect as it is in no way contradicts FIDE statutes.
“She is a great professional, one of our best international arbiters and the first woman arbiter in Asia to reach the highest category in her field.
“We regret that she finds herself in this situation, and she will have our support whatever she does.”
‘I just want to be safe’
Bayat now wants to focus on the “most important event” of her career as the chess championship nears its conclusion – it’s due to finish next week – before thinking about where she will go next.
She still hopes the Iranian Chess Federation will guarantee her safety and that she can safely return home.
“I just want to be safe. That’s it. I don’t want anything more,” said Bayat.
“I just want to be safe and be able to travel after because I am an international chess arbiter and if they invalidate my passport, I don’t know what I can do.”
CNN has reached out to a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry but has yet to receive a response.
The news comes days after Iran’s sole female Olympic medalist, Kimia Alizadeh, announced that she had permanently left her country for Europe.
“I am one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran who they have been playing with for years,” she wrote on Instagram, saying she was leaving her birth country amid searing criticism of the regime in Tehran.