Iranian Chess Official Who Escaped Iran over Refusal to Wear Hijab Reveals Jewish Roots

Shohreh Bayat (C), chief arbiter for the match between Aleksandra Goryachkina (front L) of Russia and Ju Wenjun (front R) of China, prepares for the match during the 2020 International Chess Federation (FIDE) Women's World Chess Championship in Shanghai on January 11, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China …
STR/AFP via Getty

A senior Iranian chess official who made headlines after saying she was too afraid to return home following an international championship in which she was caught with her hair uncovered, has revealed she has Jewish roots and has just celebrated her first Jewish New Year in the UK.

Shoreh Bayat, one of the top chess referees in the world,  told the DailyTelegraph newspaper she kept her Jewish heritage — her paternal grandmother was Jewish — hidden all her life in Iran.

“All my life was about showing a fake image of myself to society because they wanted me to be an image of a religious Muslim woman, which I wasn’t,” she told the paper from a friend’s home in the UK, where she is seeking asylum.

Bayat is one of handful of women who are senior chess arbiters in the world, and the only one in Asia. She was a national champion chess player aged just 12.

Her grandmother Mary, was Jewish, and had arrived in Iran from Baku in Azerbaijan during World War II.

“If they knew that I had a Jewish background, I would never ever be general-secretary of the Iranian Chess Federation,” she said.

She noted that she was used to hearing anti-Semitic remarks from other chess officials.

Bayat caused an uproar in her home country when she was caught with her hijab around her shoulders in a photo of the January 2020 Women’s World Chess Championship held in Shanghai.

Women in Iran are routinely arrested for not adhering to a strict Islamic dress code which includes the hijab.

 “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,” the 33-year old told the BBC at the time, adding that she “totally panicked” when she saw the controversy she had caused.

“It’s against my beliefs. People should have the right to choose the way they want to dress, it should not be forced,” Bayat, who is a chess adjudicator, said.

“I was tolerating it because I live in Iran. I had no other choice.”

She added that it was “highly possible” she would be arrested upon her return to Iran, or else to have her passport invalidated.

“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 told the BBC.

“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,” Bayat said.

Later on, she decided she “couldn’t tolerate it any longer” and ditched the scarf for the rest of the tournament, she told the Telegraph, knowing that she wouldn’t return home.

She told the paper she has no regrets over her decision, even though she left behind her husband and family. She expressed her hope that one day they will be together again.

Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s first female Olympic medal-winner, also defected Iran earlier this year over the regime’s dress code laws. 

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