One of the world’s top chess arbiters, Shohreh Bayat, refused to apologise and decided not to return to her home country Iran after the Women’s World Chess Championship in China and Russia last year, fearing for her safety after a photograph from the event circulated in the Iranian media and appeared to show her not wearing a headscarf. On International Women’s Day Bayat will receive the prestigious International Women of Courage Award for her brave decision after the event.

The International Women of Courage Award is an American award presented annually since 2007 by the US Department of State to women around the world “who have shown leadership, courage, resourcefulness and willingness to sacrifice for others, especially in promoting women’s rights”. 

That’s exactly what International Arbiter Shohreh Bayat of Iran did last year, when she refused to apologise to the Iranian regime after she was criticized over photographs that were shared during the first half of the Women’s World Championship in Shanghai, China. Shohreh was in fact wearing the hijab, but inappropriately according to the regime, a serious matter that could lead to imprisonment and a lashing.

Bayat, who has worked as the General Secretary of the Iranian Chess Federation, was unable to receive a guarantee of her safety by the federation. That’s when she made the decision not to wear a hijab for the remainder of the event and not to return to Iran, leaving her family behind. 

The story made headlines all over the world. Bayat even wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post titled I loosened my hijab at a chess championship. Now I’m afraid to return to Iran.

Bayat eventually went to the United Kingdom, where she was recently granted asylum. 

The award is recognition for Bayat as one of a group of “extraordinary women” who demonstrated “exceptional courage”. The 34-year-old tells chess24:

My story is both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Ordinary in that millions of women in Iran are harassed over their hijab on a daily basis. Extraordinary in that most of them are not denounced on national media for it.

Initially, I had no intention to make a political statement, but then even from a distance of thousands of kilometres Iran’s government harassed me. I found myself in a situation that I had the choice to either apologise, explain it was a mistake, give a statement supporting the hijab and in praise of Ayatollah Khomeini, or to stand up for what I believe in. I knew that, if I did that, there could be no going back. I would face prison, or worse.

Bayat says she is thrilled and honored to be the recipient of such a prestigious award, but notes:

I do not think this prize only belongs to me, it belongs to millions of women in Iran who are harassed over their hijab on a daily basis. For those who are fighting for their rights, and I am just one of them.

As an International Arbiter (IA) Bayat says she considers it extremely valuable to be a woman in a male-dominated sport and entrusted by FIDE to preside over top level events. Asked how the chess world can improve women’s rights, she says:

Women are underutilized worldwide, and chess is no exception! I believe there are many great opportunities for women in chess and the future is even brighter because the global popularity of the game continues to rise. 

Bayat has been particularly thankful for support from the British chess community, including from one of the UK’s leading arbiters, David Sedgwick, last year.

About being away from her family for one year, Bayat says:

It has never been easy to be far from my family and knowing that you are not able to come back. However, I had constant support from my chess family here. Now things are improving fast and I am positive about the future.

Shohreh Bayat is far from the only key chess figure to have left Iran for other countries. The most notable case is 17-year-old prodigy Alireza Firouzja, who last year decided to emigrate to France as he risked consequences if he played Israeli chess players.

Several of the country’s leading women players now reside in Europe or the USA. WGM Mitra Hejazipour faced criticism back home when she removed her hijab during the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Moscow and said her life was dominated by the hijab. She now resides in France. 

Another is IM Dorsa Derakhshani, who was banned by the Iranian Chess Federation when she refused to wear the hijab during the Gibraltar Chess Festival. She had already left the country and is now studying in the USA.

Other players to have left are WGM Ghazal Hakimfard, who now represents Switzerland, while WGM Atousa Pourkashiyan, WIM Shayesteh Ghaderpour and GM Elshan Moriadiabadi have lived in the USA for several years.

The International Women of Courage Award ceremony will be hosted virtually by US Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and include remarks from First Lady Dr Jill Biden. It begins at 10:00 EST (16:00 CET) and will be streamed on the U.S. Department of State website.  

You can now replay the broadcast below – it should open at the moment when Shohreh is introduced, but you can of course rewind to watch the whole show.


Chess Mentor

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