CNN  — 

It was a dream come true for Shohreh Bayat to referee the final of the Women’s World Chess Championship earlier this year but what should have been a career highlight quickly turned into a nightmare.

The Iranian chess arbiter is yet to return home to her family following the conclusion of the tournament in January, fearing punishment after she was criticized online for not wearing the appropriate headscarf.

Bayat’s concerns stem from a photograph taken from the event which appears to show her not wearing a hijab. The picture was subsequently shared and Iranian websites reportedly condemned her for what some described as protesting the country’s compulsory law.

“I knew that I had to cover my hair so I did that like many Iranian women but I was wearing a loose hijab because I don’t believe in the hijab,” Bayat told CNN Sport.

“Actually, I hate the hijab. I was just trying to wear it somehow to show that I am not a religious person and I was wearing it in a modern way. By Iranian standards, it was totally okay.”

Shohreh Bayat was the chief arbiter at the Women's World Chess Championship in 2020.

Leaving Iran behind

The photographs in question were taken at the first stage of the chess championship in Shanghai, China, before Bayat flew to Vladivostok, Russia, for the second leg between Ju Wenjun and Aleksandra Goryachkina.

While trying to focus on the job at hand, Bayat was subsequently seeking reassurances from the Iranian Chess Federation who had alerted her to the apparent storm brewing at home.

She said the federation had initially asked for a more appropriate picture of her at the tournament, which Bayat took offense to.

She then says the federation told her to post an apology on her social media channels. She agreed under the condition that it would guarantee her safety but she said the federation refused and purged her picture from their website.

As a result, Bayat decided not to wear what she calls the “misogynistic” hijab anymore and chose not to return to Iran.

CNN reached out to the Iranian Chess Federation on multiple occasions but has not received a response.

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Softly spoken and a calming influence on the room, Bayat’s attitude changes whenever she speaks about the hijab.

A steely determination breaks through. So too does a wave of controlled anger with its roots embedded in years of wearing something she never wanted to wear.

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.

Punishment for those found flouting the rules can include imprisonment or lashing, according to Amnesty International.

Bayat says she has often been accompanied by a minder who ensures the country’s rules are followed when she works abroad but says economic issues have seen that role reduced.

Bayat is currently living with friends in the UK.