Iranian chess player in exile says she has no regrets about removing hijab

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An Iranian chess player, who moved to Spain after she competed without a hijab and had an arrest warrant issued against her back home, has no regrets over her bold gesture in support of the protest movement against her country’s clerical leadership.

But 25-year-old Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, better known as Sara Khadem, also told Reuters that the warrant, which made her return to Iran impossible, was “the most horrible thing” that happened to her.

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She said that, after playing in December’s FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Kazakhstan’s Almaty without the headscarf mandatory under Iran’s strict Islamic dress code, she had hardly expected harsher reprisals than a travel ban.

“(As chess players) we always have to predict what is going to happen next, but...it didn’t go as I expected,” she told Reuters at an undisclosed location in southern Spain where she now lives with her film-maker husband and child.

Iranian chess player Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, 25, better known as Sara Khadem, gestures during an interview with Reuters in southern Spain, February 15, 2023. (Reuters)
Iranian chess player Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, 25, better known as Sara Khadem, gestures during an interview with Reuters in southern Spain, February 15, 2023. (Reuters)

Khadem, who arrived in Spain in January on a residence visa linked to the purchase of property, said Iranian authorities had told her to record a video saying that she regretted her actions as a condition of returning home.

She refused, and subsequently learned about the warrant.

Still, removing the hijab was “something that I thought was right to do and I don’t regret anything,” she said, adding that she only used to wear the headscarf at tournaments when there were cameras, and that many Iranian sportswomen felt the same way.

“But it (no hijab) has become one of the symbols of the movement in Iran and I also decided to finally do something that I wanted to, to be myself...I was motivated by the people of Iran.”

Laws enforcing mandatory hijab-wearing have become a flashpoint during the unrest that has swept Iran since mid-September when a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, died in the custody of the morality police.

A woman holds a poster of Iranian Mahsa Amini during a rally in support of the demonstrations in Iran, at The Place de la Republique in Paris, on October 29, 2022. (AFP)
A woman holds a poster of Iranian Mahsa Amini during a rally in support of the demonstrations in Iran, at The Place de la Republique in Paris, on October 29, 2022. (AFP)

Khadem said Mahsa’s death “made us all heartbroken,” inspiring many to protest. A string of sportswomen competing overseas have since appeared without their headscarves in public.

“There are lots of things that people are not happy about at the moment, so even if this time it doesn’t change anything, I think there will come a time when people will rise up again,” said Khadem, who does not consider herself a political activist, but wants to be a voice for change.

Ranked 774th in the world and 9th in Iran, Khadem plans to keep playing under the Iranian flag, but has received proposals from other countries.

She said political sanctions against sportspeople from countries such as Russia were often unfair, and bans on their participation in tournaments were causing suffering.

“I know that many of the athletes are not responsible for what is happening in their countries,” she added.

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