Iran doesn’t have any women Grandmasters residing in the country. All five of their active Grandmasters have defected to other countries. Defected is putting it mildly. They had to seek asylum elsewhere.
The story of chess arbitrator Shohreh Bayat perfectly explains why it’s so difficult for women chess players to stay in the country.
The primary point of contention is the fact that women have to wear head scarves. The scarves, also called hijabs, partially cover the hair and must be worn by women at all times in Iran by law.
Bayat was working as the Chief Arbiter for the 2020 Women’s World Championship held in China when the President of the Iranian Chess Federation sent a message that annoyed her.
“The president of the chess federation sent me a message; he said my hijab is not proper. It really made me furious,” Bayat told Lichess in an interview.
The president, in his complaint, said Bayat’s hijab was too far back, revealing too much hair. “I was already doing my best to tolerate this with difficulty. It was fine by Iranian standards, but he was pushing me and pushing me. I was miles away from my country and they were still hassling me.” Bayat said in the interview.
The Russian President of @FIDE_chess @advorkovich asked me to change my #WomanLifeFreedom t-shirt during the Fischer Random Chess Championship. I then appeared in Ukranian colours. @FIDE_chess said I am an inappropriate arbiter since I openly support human rights in Iran&Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/C2PoGlqL1g
— Shohreh Bayat (@ShohrehBayat) January 8, 2023
Annoyed with that, Bayat wanted to make a statement but also didn’t want to push it too far so much so that she would not be allowed back into her country.
“I decided to stand against him, but in a way that I could still come back to Iran, and not get in trouble, sending a message to leave me alone. The next day I pushed my hijab back a bit further.”
She thought it was alright and nobody really noticed. However, the 5cm that she pushed her hijab back, changed her life forever.
“I was the top news for every news agency. There were loads of messages from people sending me screenshots and telling me not to come back to Iran.”
Photos were been circulating in Iran that showed her low-hanging head scarf. Making the situation worse, some were taken from an angle that gave an exaggerated impression of how far back she had pushed it.
The situation was so tense that she tried to negotiate with the Iranian chess federation for her safe return to Iran. They in turn, gave her a 2-page list of what to do which included praising Ayatollah Khomeini and Qasem Soleimani and saying her achievements belong to the Iranian regime.
Bayat knew that returning to Iran would not be safe. The problem was she didn’t have legal residency in any other country. And her husband was also still in Iran.
After getting in touch with a lawyer who advised her on what needed to be done, Bayat was eventually granted asylum in the UK. After a year and a half, her husband was able to escape as well.
Iran chess has been in the news lately after Woman Grandmaster Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, better known as Sara Khadem, refused to wear a hijab as she competed in the world rapid and blitz championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan from December 26-30 and subsequently decided not to return home but defect to Spain.
Khadem not wearing the hijab was seen as being in solidarity with demonstrations that brought unrest in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old died in custody in September after being arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly not wearing her hijab correctly.
Before Khadem, Dorsa Derakhshani defected in 2017. Atousa Pourkashiyan, like Derakhshani, plays for the USA. Ghazal Hakimifard has moved to Switzerland while Mitra Hejazipour plays for France.
While all of Iran’s women Grandmasters have defected to other countries, nothing has hurt the federation more than World No. 4 Firouzja leaving the country when he was just 16.
In 2019, Firouzja, upset at being forced to lose by default against Israeli rivals, defected to France. A chess prodigy, Firouzja won the Iranian Chess Championship at age 12 and earned the Grandmaster title at 14. At 16, Firouzja became the second-youngest 2700-rated player. He is the youngest ever 2800-rated player, beating the previous record set by Magnus Carlsen by more than five months.