Fearing hijab law, Iranian referee refuses to return home

Female referee adjusting equipment before chess match between two women (© Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
Chess referee Shohreh Bayat (center) fears returning to Iran after photos showed her appearing not to wear the regime’s mandatory hijab during a tournament in Shanghai on January 11. (© Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Fearing for her safety, an Iranian chess referee is refusing to return home after photos showed her officiating at an international chess match without wearing an adequate headscarf.

Shohreh Bayat, 32, a former secretary-general of the Iranian Chess Federation, says she was wearing a hijab, though it was not visible in some photos circulated online. Still, she does not believe wearing a headscarf should be legally required.

“People should have the right to choose the way they want to dress, it should not be forced,” Bayat told the BBC. “I was tolerating it because I live in Iran. I had no other choice.”

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian women face many restrictions in what was once a thriving, modern society. Women have been banned from soccer stadiums and other athletic events, and they risk prison for violating the mandatory hijab law.

A judge in July 2019 sentenced three women to a combined 55 years in prison for peacefully protesting the mandatory hijab. The U.S. has denounced the punishment as a “grave violation” of basic human rights. In March 2019, a judge sentenced Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer who defended other women charged with removing their headscarves, to 148 lashes and more than 30 years in prison.

But Iranian women continue to strive for equality. As part of the White Wednesday movement, women wear white to protest their lack of choice about whether to cover their heads in public. Many women post to social media images of themselves not wearing headscarves.

Earlier this year, Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, defected from the country. Alizadeh accused Iranian officials of sexism and mistreatment, criticizing the hijab law and describing herself as “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.”