An Iranian chess player who fled to Spain after she took part in an international tournament without the mandatory hijab has said she is “not myself” when she wears the headscarf.
In December Sara Khadem, 25, appeared without a hijab — which is compulsory for women under Iranian law — at the International Chess Federation (FIDE) World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Her action was seen by some as a show of support for the protests that have gripped Iran since the Sept 16 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, 22. Amini had been arrested by Tehran morality police for an alleged breach of the country’s strict dress code for women. Khadem, who is also known as Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, moved to Spain in early January with her husband, film director Ardeshir Ahmadi, and their 10-month-old son Sam.
In an interview published in Spanish newspaper El Pais on Sunday, Khadem said that before the tournament in Almaty she would only wear the hijab “if there were cameras, because I was representing Iran”.
“But with the veil I am not myself, I don’t feel well, and therefore I wanted to put an end to that situation. And I decided not to wear it anymore,” she said in her first public comments since moving to Spain. The newspaper said the interview was carried out at a “secret location for security reasons”.
Iranian female athletes are required to abide by the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women, mainly by covering their heads, when representing their country at international events.
Khadem said she hoped her relatives in Iran do not “suffer reprisals because if anyone should give explanations for my actions, it is me, not them, since the decision was mine alone”. She said she started thinking of moving abroad after the birth of her son.
“I started to appreciate living in a place where Sam could go out in the streets and play without us being worried, and many things like that. Spain emerged as the best option, thinking of Sam,” she said.
Khadem said she would like to continue to represent Iran at chess tournaments and plans to become an online streamer, presenting chess programmes.
“I have had that idea for years, but I did not want to do it from Iran with the veil,” she said.
The 1997-born chess player is ranked 804 among active players globally and is ranked as number 10 in Iran, according to the International Chess Federation.
In October, Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in South Korea without her mandatory hijab on, later saying it had fallen off accidentally. However, it is unclear whether Rekabi’s comments were made under duress.
In November, Iranian archer Parmida Ghasemi demonstrated her support for anti-government protests by removing her hijab during an awards ceremony in Tehran, later saying she did not notice it falling off.
Video shared on social media shows her allowing the headscarf to drop in what was widely interpreted as a show of support for nation-wide demonstrations.
Iran’s deputy sports minister Maryam Kazemipour said in November that athletes who acted against Islamic norms “regretted” their actions afterward and “are looking for an opportunity to make up for their mistake.”