Iranian chess queens’ gambit: Playing without hijab at high-profile tournament

Sara Khadem competes without a hijab in the FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan (via REUTERS)
Sara Khadem competes without a hijab in the FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan (via REUTERS)

Two Iranian chess champs defied their nation’s rules by taking part in an international tournament without hijab in a high-profile act of protest after the death in custody of a young woman allegedly violating Islamic dress codes.

Photos showed Sara Khadem and Atousa Pourkashiyan competing this week at the FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan, without the Islamic headscarf required by the Tehran regime’s clerical rulers.

Both were seen in photos concentrating on their chess boards as they competed in the five-day event, which has drawn top-ranked champion Magnus Carlsen of Denmark and included a 90-minute opening ceremony extravaganza featuring singers, dancers, choirs and a local pop group.

Iran’s unrest began with the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman visiting the capital and abducted for allegedly wearing her headscarf in too relaxed a manner. Weeks of demonstrations, nighttime chants from rooftops, acts of vandalism targeting regime outposts and other acts of defiance have shaken the regime. At least 500 people have been killed by regime enforcers during the protests, including several dozen youth, according to Hrana,

Ms Khadem, 25 and also known as Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, is a rising star in Iran’s competitive chess world and has had a troubled relationship with authorities, quitting the national team in 2020 only to rejoin later that year. In Almaty, she has won four games, lost three, and deadlocked in one.

Ms Pourkashiyan, 34, is a six-time Iranian champion. She has won five times, lost once and had two draws in the first two days of competition.

Both natives of the capital Tehran have won national and international competitions. Neither have made public comments about their appearance or posted photos of themselves without headscarves to their social media accounts. News of their acts of defiance was reported by reformist newspapers and sports outlets in Iran, but ignored by broadcast and other media controlled by hardline regime adjutants.

Numerous actors and celebrities have appeared without their hijabs at public events or on social media without the mandatory hijab, but appearing at international sporting events whilst representing the Islamic Republic of Tehran authorities.

Earlier this month, Islamic enforcers loyal to the clerical dictatorship in Tehran demolished the home of Elnaz Rekabi, a champion climber who competed in a match in South Korea with her hair uncovered in October. Last month an Iranian competitive archerer appeared without her hijab during an awards ceremony in Tehran.

Iran’s deputy sports minister Maryam Kazemipour acknowledged last months that some female athletes had acted against “Islamic norms” but claimed they had later apologised.