Iranian chess player in hijab row was 'forced to make video confession' or live in exile
Iran threatened to exile a female chess player who removed her hijab during a tournament if she refused to film a video apology blaming the West, she has told The Telegraph.
Sara Khadem said she had no choice but to turn her back on her native Iran after refusing an order to film an apology video for competing without a head covering in late December in Kazakhstan.
“I wasn’t going to do that,” Ms Khadem, 25, told The Telegraph, explaining how she was instructed to blame pressure from the West for her decision to not cover her head.
After the tournament in Almaty, she flew to Spain where she remains with her husband and their young son.
Ms Khadem, who is Iran’s top female chess player and the world’s 17th, began playing chess at the age of eight because her mother thought it might help to focus her mind as she was something of a “daydreamer”.
She misses her parents, who she visited “almost every day”.
“I hope that I will be the only one held responsible for what I did,” she said.
“We feel very welcome in Spain but we have left some of the most important things in life in Iran, so there are mixed feelings.”
A viral photograph of Ms Khadem playing hijab-less during the tournament made her an emblem of Iran’s protest movement which was ignited by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini who was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress rules for women.
She told The Telegraph that she previously only wore the hijab at international tournaments during moments of formal presentations and for the official photograph, something she began to feel was “hypocrisy”.
“This time I felt that if I did as I was doing before, I would be disrespecting the people,” she said of her decision to dispense with the head covering altogether at the Fide World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Almaty. The tournament did not herald Ms Khadem’s first brush with Iranian authorities.
In late 2019 she expressed support for a young Iranian chess star, Alireza Firouzja, who had refused to accept Tehran’s policy under which its players must forfeit matches against Israeli opponents.
Then in January 2020 Ms Khadem announced that she was resigning from the national chess team in protest at Iran’s shooting down of a Ukrainian commercial airplane, killing all 176 people on board.
She also posted hashtags in solidarity with demonstrators after the death of Amini.
Ms Khadem won her first world championship medal at the age of 11 in the under-12 category. She became the first Iranian woman to reach the level of international master.
Now she hopes to break into the world’s top 10 from her new base in Spain, but she still wants to represent Iran as an individual player at tournaments.
“I’m a chess player. I’m not a political figure. As a chess player I have some responsibilities towards what is happening around me, but chess is the first thing in my life. I don’t see myself as an activist.”