A loose hijab spells trouble for an Iranian, even overseas

February 18, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Shohreh Bayat is an Iranian chess master and an arbiter, or trainer, for FIDE, the international chess organization. Here’s her FIDE profile, in which she wears the obligatory hijab (click on screenshot to see more information on the profile):

But it’s that hijab, or rather the lack thereof, that got her into trouble, but also shows us that she’s one of those brave Iranian women who fights their government’s sexist laws.

Bayat describes what happened to her in this poignant article in the Washington Post (if you’re paywalled, copies are available via judicious inquiry).

Bayat loved chess but also was losing her faith in Islam. And she didn’t want to wear the hijab, which of course is obligatory in Iran, but is also obligatory for women representing Iran overseas. It wound up putting her at odds with her government’s chess federation. As she writes:

When traveling abroad for chess tournaments, I admired the young women from other countries who wore nice clothes, their hair beautifully styled. I gradually began to spend more time in front of the mirror, trying to find ways, within the confines of my fabric prison, to appear normal.

Whenever I went abroad, I would make small changes in my appearance, perhaps by showing more hair than previously, even if I was careful to keep a portion of it concealed. Eventually, I gained a degree of renown as an international chess arbiter, working at tournaments around the world. I slowly became braver in loosening my hijab on those trips.

In 2017, I was honored to be the first woman ever appointed general secretary of a sports federation in Iran. But holding the position meant also enduring continual harassment by Iranian Chess Federation officials about the hijab. The next year, I resigned in frustration.

That didn’t end the conflicts over the hijab. I continued to travel as an arbiter for the International Chess Federation and was pleased to be chosen for the Women’s World Chess Championship 2020. When packing to travel to Shanghai for the first leg of the championship last month, I included several colorful scarves, which was the most daring I could be within the confines of Iranian law.

In short, when in Shanghai she wore a very loose hijab, and photos of that were sent back to Iran. She got in big trouble, and was urged by Iranian officials to write a letter in support of the hijab.

She couldn’t do it, and now, as she reports, she’ll never be able to go back to her homeland. Even if she wears the hijab upon a return, she’d probably still be clapped into prison. She’ll never see her friends and family again, all because she wore a loose head covering.

Her ending is ineffably sad:

How could I write a letter proclaiming what I don’t believe? Was it not humiliating enough that I had had to endure this detestable scarf on my head every day? The pain was enormous, the tears endless.

The next day, condemned already, I left the scarf behind and entered the world with determination and satisfaction. The Iranian media reported, without evidence, that I had applied for asylum. (No country was named.) I was still at the tournament, with weeks to go, and had a return ticket to Tehran. I wanted to go home, but by now it was too dangerous.

As I write to you, I am in Britain — a lovely country, where I have received much kindness and generosity from the chess community. I don’t know what the future holds.

I have seen many words of support from U.S. embassies around the world. That is touching, but also poignant, given that most Iranians can no longer enter the United States. Is it really against the law to be born Iranian? We are also humans, you know.

The policy to prohibit Iranians from entering the U.S. is Trump’s, of course, and wouldn’t it be lovely to have this brave woman in America? So a double pox on Trump’s policy and on Iran, and a blessing from Ceiling Cat on Bayat and all the women of Iran who stand up against their oppressive and misogynistic theocracy.

h/t: Cate

22 thoughts on “A loose hijab spells trouble for an Iranian, even overseas

    1. IIRC there’s a big Iranian community in Canada – initially Shah supporters who had to leave or be killed in the revolution, but more general now.

      A good place to land, if she can. Best wishes to her wherever she ends up.

  1. An International Arbiter is an awful lot more than a mere trainer. More like senior judge. It is her job to see that the laws of chess are upheld, ensure that the tournament’s playing conditions are adhered to, and to settle disputes.

    This has been pretty high profile in the chess world. Iran bought themselves a lot of bad publicity very cheaply. Especially after interfering with the career and professional development of the world’s most promising junior player. Alireza Firouzja is now refusing to play under the Iranian flag, and may give up his citizenship.


    1. The Guardian seems not to have the Shohreh Bayat story at all. So it is likely fake news! I mean, consider this:

      “I am in Britain — a lovely country, where I have received much kindness and generosity from the chess community.”

      As The Guardian explains to us most days, Britain is, in fact, probably the most racist and women-oppressing nation in the world. Probably in all of history.

      So far as I can see, the story was first reported by the BBC and immediately picked up (no one will like this) by the Daily Mail on Jan 15. And (this will be even more disliked) by Breitbart Jerusalem on Jan 23.

    2. Also, Iran (or rather classical Persia, I guess) is the origin of many aspects of modern chess, too! What a shame that they are ruining the game (and life more generally) for their citizens now.

  2. I have seen many words of support from U.S. embassies around the world. That is touching, but also poignant, given that most Iranians can no longer enter the United States.

    It’s poignant for a US American to hear, too. We no longer support the brave and freedom-seeking against the powerful and despotic.

    Ask the Kurds. Ask the Yemenis. Ask the peasants of North Korea, or people of Crimea. Ask Jamal Khashoggi.

    1. Ask the Central American’s and others seeking asylum.

      But hey, if you’re a corrupt white collar criminal, you may get a pardon by corruption incarnate Trump.

      1. I don’t think any of the high-profile pardons or commutations of sentence Trump’s granted so far has been done according to Hoyle — which is to say after formal application to, full-field investigation by, and a recommendation one way or the other from the Office of the Pardon Attorney of the United States Department of Justice.

        The DoJ Pardon Attorney must be feeling as lonely and ignored as the Maytag repairman in those old tv commercials.

        Trump loves him the pardon power. It’s something the constitution vests in the presidency to exercise with essentially the same unchecked authority as a king.

        1. If you think of the 10 or 20 high visibility, most egregious criminals and fraudsters now serving time, I’ll bet a majority are freed before tRump leaves office at the end of the year. He want’s to spoil the life of those who are invested in customs and norms of the society, just as his own life has been spoiled.

          1. Yeah, I think Trump’s goal here is to anesthetize the public for the pardons to come, for Roger Stone and other Russia-investigation miscreants and, eventually, for Trump and his immediate family after the election.

            1. Jeffrey Toobin of CNBC points out that tyrants are both arbitrarily cruel and arbitrarily generous – simply as a means of showing he’s in full control.

  3. Best of luck to her; hopefully she will find a welcoming country, and completely leave an oppressive religion.

    For anyone interested, some of her games are here.

    Pointed comment from Jihad Watch: “Will the Western feminists who don hijabs on World Hijab Day in solidarity with Muslim women who are supposedly oppressed in the West for wearing the hijab speak up for the right of Shohreh Bayat not to wear it? Of course not.”

  4. For so long we have heard Muslim wimen claim wearing the hijab is by choice and desire. Yet further proof it is not. I support women to wear what they wish, hijab or not.

  5. Bowlers who don’t play chess, chess ratings are like bowling averages multiplied by 10. So a 2089 chess rating is (very roughly) like a 208 bowling average.

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