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.
Iranian chess player, Sara Khadem, is now in exile in southern Spain with her family after being issued arrest papers in her home country for refusing to wear a headscarf in public. In Iran, women are required to wear headscarves even when abroad, but some women are choosing to go against the mandate in support of the protests sparked by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Khadem was inspired by the sacrifices of women and girls risking their lives on the streets of Iran and felt that playing in a tournament without a headscarf was the least she could do to support their cause. The situation of another woman, climber Elnaz Rekabi, who was also forced to recant, is unclear after returning to Iran.
Sara Khadem: Top Iranian Chess Player Living in Exile for Refusing Headscarf
Sara Khadem, a highly accomplished chess player from Iran, is now living in exile in southern Spain with her family after refusing to wear a headscarf in public. Khadem cannot return to Iran due to arrest papers that await her. She and her family have asked the BBC not to reveal their precise location, fearing repercussions even from afar.
Women in Iran are required to wear headscarves in public, including when they are abroad. However, some women have started protesting and choosing not to wear headscarves, including Khadem. The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody last year sparked nationwide protests, inspiring many women and girls to speak out against the country’s strict codes of behavior.
Khadem’s decision to compete in the tournament in Kazakhstan without her headscarf last year was not an easy one. She said she felt wearing a headscarf in front of the cameras was hypocritical, given the sacrifices being made by women and girls in Iran.
When asked if she had considered joining the demonstrators, she replied that she couldn’t because of her responsibilities to her young son, Sam. Nevertheless, she still wants to use her influence in other ways to help make a difference.
Khadem’s defiance is not new. In 2020, after a Ukrainian plane was shot down by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, killing 176 people, she criticized the Iranian government on social media. Her post did not mention the flight, but she was still forced to sign a confession saying that she did not mean anything political by her comments. Her passport was confiscated, and she thought her career was over.
Although Khadem misses her family in Iran, she does not regret her decision to stand up for what she believes in. She does not consider herself to be a political activist, but she acknowledges that so much in Iran is political. Her husband, Ardeshir Ahmadi, is a film director and internet show presenter, who has also had direct experience of being on the wrong side of the Islamic Republic.
She has been able to stay in Spain because of the golden visa rule, which allows anyone who buys a property valued at half a million euros (£442,000; $536,000) to gain residency.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez invited Sara Khadem to meet him. The day turned out to be bittersweet.
“It was on that day that I was issued with arrest orders at home. So I had mixed feelings: I was appreciated in this country – and in my own country, where you have achieved lots of success, you get arrest papers.”