Chess star Sara Khadem flees Iran over headscarf rule

Tuesday, 10 January 2023 (14:59 IST)
Since its very beginning, the mass protest movement of Iranians against their theocratic government has been supported by many of the country's prominent sportswomen and sportsmen.
The female elite of the Iranian chess world have been no exception. In late December, Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, Sara Khadem for short, joined the ranks of Iranian chess professionals who have unequivocally rejected the mandatory headscarf at the FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan. 
In doing so, the 25-year-old international chess grandmaster has shown her solidarity with the movement against Iran's mullah regime.
Finding refuge in Spain
Khadem's decision not to wear a headscarf during her appearance at the World Cup had immediate consequences. Following the event, Khadem traveled from Kazakhstan to an unknown city in Spain with her husband, film director Ardeshir Ahmadi, and their 10-month-old son.
A return to Iran would probably have resulted in life-threatening consequences for the chess star. The case of Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi, who competed without a headscarf at the Asian Championships in Seoul in October, serves as a cautionary tale. Upon her return to Iran, Rekabi was placed under house arrest, and she and her entourage have since been subjected to massive state intimidation.
Threats of expropriation, bans on leaving the country and the publication of forced confessions: such is the ruthless approach of the state against dissidents. Among the minimum estimated 20,000 prisoners who have been arrested for criticizing the totalitarian regime over the past four months are numerous well-known athletes. They are now facing charges, some of which are incomprehensible, and have been threatened with cruel judicial sentences, including execution.
Following her arrival in Spain, Khadem wrote on Instagram, "My emigration is a family decision. I have not applied for asylum here. Because of my sporting successes and my husband's multiple nationalities, I was never concerned about a right of residence abroad."
Her new adopted country may serve as a springboard for new sporting heights for the chess grandmaster. "For the last three years, I was barred from leaving the country. As a result, I missed important tournaments and championships," she has pointed out.
The women's world No. 17, however, hasn't ruled out a return to her home country. "Iran remains my primary home. I will certainly return to my homeland with my family as soon as the appropriate time comes," she said.
Khadem is the latest Iranian chess star in exile
Khadem is the fifth Iranian chess star to flee the country in recent years. Before her, Mitra Hejazipour, Ghazal Hakimifard, Atousa Pourkashiyan and Dorsa Derakhshani decided to emigrate for similar reasons. Pourkashiyan and Derakhshani now play for the US team, while Hakimifard plays for Switzerland and Hejazipour for France.
Alireza Firouzja also no longer represents his homeland at the chessboard. A year ago, the Iranian chess pro was the youngest player ever to reach an Elo rating — used to indicate playing strength in chess — of 2800. By comparison, Norwegian chess star Magnus Carlsen currently holds the highest rating in the world at 2859. At the age of only 18, Firouzja was ranked second in the world. However, the top talent already left his home country in 2019 and has been competing for France since 2021.
International chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat also left Iran two years ago. After officiating a tournament abroad without wearing a headscarf, she departed for the United Kingdom.
Unbearable 'to be censored'
Shayesteh Ghaderpour is a former Iranian national chess player. She competed for Hamburger SK in the 2013/14 season in the Bundesliga and used to compete in several competitions abroad together with expatriate Iranian chess grandmasters.
"When participating in international tournaments abroad, half of our energy was wasted on escaping the annoying scrutiny of the morality guards traveling with us on the Iranian national team," Ghaderpour recalled in a DW interview. "The envoys of the mullah regime incessantly checked whether our compulsory headscarves were fitting according to regulations and whether any head hair was peeking out."
Any "violations" would have led to drastic consequences, such as being barred from leaving the country along with restrictions on playing the sport and on professional activities, Ghaderpour added.
The former Hamburg chess player, who now lives in the US state of Florida, feels great sympathy for Khadem and others, who have "no alternative." From her point of view it is unbearable "to be censored, to inauthentically pretend to have an unacceptable world view and to always fight alone."
She also emphasized that "the personal freedoms of athletes must not be restricted due to special laws in Iran — even when participating as national athletes. In this day and age, this is no longer justifiable."

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