TEHRAN - When one of the world’s most promising chess players, 25-year-old Sara Khadem, decided to play at an international tournament without her headscarf, in solidarity with the protest movement in Iran, she thought a warning would be the worst that would happen to her. Instead, she can’t return to Iran - there are arrest papers waiting for her, and she now lives in exile in southern Spain, with her husband and one-year-old son. She and her family asked the BBC not to reveal her precise location; their worry is that there may be repercussions even thousands of miles away from Iran. Women in Iran are required to wear headscarves in public, even when abroad. But a few are choosing not to, in support of the women and girls spearheading the protests inside the country, following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September.
One of them, the climber Elnaz Rekabi, was forced to recant and it is unclear what her situation is, now that she is back in Iran. Sara Khadem said there was a slow evolution of her decision to play in the tournament in Kazakhstan in December last year without her headscarf. The contestants only wore them in front of the cameras, and she felt that was hypocritical. Given the sacrifices being made by the women and girls on the streets of Iran, some of them risking their lives, it was the least she could do, she said. Had she considered joining the demonstrators herself? “Yes of course,” she replied.
But her young son, Sam, held her back. She said: “I have responsibilities to him, and I thought perhaps I could use my influence in other ways.” Sara Khadem has been playing chess competitively since she was about eight years old. This is not the first time she has fallen foul of the Islamic Republic’s strict codes of behaviour. In 2020, a Ukrainian plane which took off from Tehran airport was shot down by, as it turned out, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, killing 176 people.