For 32-year-old Iranian Shohreh Bayat, the Women’s World Chess Championship was meant to be a career highlight.
It is her first time as the event’s chief arbiter — a senior role.
But that achievement has been clouded by controversy after the circulation of a photograph taken at game in Shanghai that appears to show Ms Bayat without a headscarf, as her country mandates.
She now feels unsafe to return to Iran, where women can be arrested for violating strict Islamic dress code.
«I turned on my mobile and saw that my picture was everywhere [in Iranian media]. They were claiming I was not wearing a headscarf and that I wanted to protest against the hijab,» Ms Bayat told the BBC.
She says she was, in fact, covering her head as she always has at international tournaments, despite disagreeing with the rule.
‘Women should have right to choose’
«It’s against my beliefs. People should have the right to choose the way they want to dress, it should not be forced,» she explained, speaking from Vladivostok in eastern Russia, where she is now refereeing the second leg of the World Championship.
«I was tolerating it because I live in Iran. I had no other choice.»
But this time Ms Bayat has run into serious problems.
The photographs circulating online and being discussed by Iran’s state media show Ms Bayat’s scarf apparently draped over her shoulders and not over her hair. In other pictures from the same day, her head is clearly — albeit loosely — covered.
Ms Bayat says Iran’s chess federation instructed her to «write something» in response to the fuss, which she took to mean an apology and a defence of Iran’s dress code.
So now she says it’s too risky to return to her family.
«There are many people in prison in Iran because of the headscarf. It’s a very serious issue. Maybe they’d want to make an example of me,» she explains, adding that she had «totally panicked» when she saw the reaction online.
The International Chess Federation (Fide), has not commented officially on the situation, as Ms Bayat has not broken any of its rules. But English grandmaster and now Fide Vice-President Nigel Short did tweet a photo praising the chief arbiter.
Ms Bayat says she asked Iran’s chess federation to write a letter guaranteeing her safety on her return, but they declined. She believes that they are under pressure, from higher up.
‘My achievements have been overlooked’
Ms Bayat is angry that the argument over how she dresses has overshadowed her achievements in chess, where she’s one of only a few top level women arbiters in the world — and the only one at all in Asia.
«I can’t think of any Iranian women who have worked at such a high-level tournament. But the only thing that matters for them is my hijab, not my qualification. That really bothers me,» Ms Bayat says.
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Her own case comes soon after Iran’s first female Olympic medal-winner apparently defected. Kimia Alizadeh later posted on Instagram that she had left Iran partly because she was fed up with its mandatory dress code.
«I think people are under too much pressure, especially athletes,» Ms Bayat says, adding: «This pressure to be something that you are not.»
She had felt that herself, even before the main controversy erupted: she had sent a photograph for Iran’s chess federation website, only to have it request another because the hijab on the image Ms Bayat had chosen was not «good enough».
For now, Ms Bayat is focusing on the job in hand: refereeing in Vladivostok as China’s Ju Wenjun defends her title from Russian challenger Alexandra Gorychkina.
She’s not yet sure of her own next move.
But as she cannot return to Iran, she has concluded that she has nothing more to lose and has removed her hijab altogether.
«This is a very hard decision. I feel so sad because I’m going to miss my family,» she confesses, though she said taking off her scarf meant she could «be myself».
«If I had a choice to go back to Iran, of course I would love to,» Ms Bayat says. «But I don’t know what would happen to me.»
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