Three years after fleeing Iran, chess referee Shohreh Bayat fears she will be further ostracized after challenging the game’s governing body and its president, Russia’s former deputy prime minister, over her choice of clothing at a tournament in October .
In 2020, Bayat was criticized in Iran for not wearing the proper headscarf at the Women’s World Chess Championship in China and Russia. She refused to bow to the regime’s pressure but, as a result, she has not returned home for fear of punishment.
Now, three years later, Bayat has irritated the International Chess Federation (FIDE) and its president by wearing clothing in support of the Iranian protests and the people of Ukraine.
Bayat, 35, who now lives in London with her husband, recently officiated at the 2022 Fischer Random World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October.
The tournament was another opportunity for Bayat to referee some of the sport’s biggest stars, although it came at a difficult time when protests spread across his home country of Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini.
The 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman died in mid-September after being detained by the country’s moral police, allegedly for not respecting the country’s conservative dress code, sparking outrage over a series of grievances against the regime. .
“It reminded me of my own story,” Bayat told CNN. “So I decided to defend women’s rights in Iran. During the tournament I wore a t-shirt with the Iranian people’s motto ‘WomanLifeFreedom’ and I wanted to be with them.”
Bayat said that after the first day of wearing the shirt, a FIDE official asked him, unofficially, not to wear it.
In a statement sent to CNN, FIDE said that “referees at major events must dress with due decoration and discretion” and that Bayat “ignored direct instructions given to him to stop using slogans or slogans.”
According to Bayat, such regulations are not found in the FIDE referees’ manual and he says that no dress code was given for the event in Iceland.
The referee’s manual says officials must “follow the dress code” and must “dress appropriately, helping to improve the image of chess as a sport.” CNN contacted FIDE to clarify the dress code expected for the October event.
Frustrated by the request to stop using the slogan, Bayat said she decided she wasn’t breaking any rules, so she used it again the next day.
Bayat says he was once again asked by an official to remove it, only this time he was told the request came from FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, who was previously Russia’s deputy prime minister and who attended the tournament in Iceland.
Bayat said Dvorkovich never spoke to her in person about the shirt, despite being in the same room as her when she wore it.
Dvorkovich, however, sent him a message on WhatsApp (messages seen by CNN) to ask Bayat not to use official FIDE events for “political purposes.”
Angered by Dvorkovich’s request, Bayat says she responded quickly but then deleted her “emotional” response.
Bayat then informed Dvorkovich that he would not wear the shirt the next day, even though he wanted to do “the right thing.”
Since FIDE’s statutes state that it is “committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and will endeavor to promote the protection of these rights,” Bayat said it decided it had not violated any rules.
“I thought about it carefully and realized that it was not me who was making chess political, but Arkady,” Bayat said.
“I was following FIDE rules, but Arkady was breaking them by prohibiting me from defending women’s rights in Iran.”
FIDE refuted any idea that politics played a role in Dvorkovich’s request to Bayat.
“We were not judging his views or his activism, but the platform and the moment he chose,” FIDE told CNN.
The next day, Bayat, who has not seen his parents since leaving Iran more than three years ago, said he bought a blue and yellow suit and wore it in support of the Ukrainian people fighting against the Russian invasion, and also in memory of the 176 people who died when Iran said it unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian plane that crashed near Tehran in 2020.
Iranian chess referee seeks asylum in the UK
She says she was not told anything about the blue and yellow suit, but since leaving the tournament in Iceland, Bayat told CNN that she has not been invited to another FIDE event, even though the organization recognized her as the best female referee in Europe in 2022.
Bayat said she was initially expelled from the referee commission (a registry of all qualified referees) and, in a message seen by CNN, a senior FIDE official told her it was because of her clothing in Iceland.
His name is currently listed in the database and FIDE told CNN that Bayat was still in the running to officiate future events, but that he has “more international referees than world events, so we need to establish some rotation.”
FIDE President Dvorkovich was first elected in 2018 and re-elected for a second term in August. Previously, the 50-year-old served as Russia’s deputy prime minister between 2012 and 2018, following a stint as the Kremlin’s top economic adviser.
The Kremlin welcomed Dvorkovich’s re-election as FIDE president last year, but he has always maintained that his proximity to the Kremlin would not affect his work for FIDE and noted that he was one of the most important establishment figures in Russia. in questioning the war in Ukraine.
However, Bayat told CNN that he believes Dvorkovich does not accept criticism of Iran because of Russia’s ties to the country: Iran continues to support Russia with military aid for the war in Ukraine.
She points to FIDE’s handling of the Iranian Chess Federation as further evidence of this.
Dvorkovich wrote a letter urging Iran to comply with FIDE regulations in 2020 after he allegedly told his players not to play against Israeli opponents.
The acting president of the Iranian Chess Federation responded by saying that Iran has consistently complied with FIDE rules and statutes, and that athletes themselves decide which events to participate in.
Despite having received a warning, Iranian players continue to lose games and FIDE has yet to take concrete action.
“I find it extremely ironic that FIDE considers my human rights t-shirt political, but when the Iranian Chess Federation repeatedly forces its players not to play against Israel, FIDE remains silent and turns a blind eye to it,” Bayat said. .
When asked by CNN if it was confident that Dvorkovich was working without pressure from Russian authorities regarding Bayat’s support for the Iranian protests, FIDE said it had complete and utter faith in him.
“While we respect the political stance and activities of Ms. Bayat, any FIDE official must respect political neutrality while in service, and of all the official positions one can hold, that of referee is the one that demands the most. standards of integrity, neutrality and discretion,” FIDE said in a statement to CNN.
“No matter how noble or uncontroversial the cause, engaging in activism from that role is inappropriate and unprofessional. In fact, he was asked not to use any slogans while acting as a referee and the reasons were explained to him.”
Bayat’s activism has caught the attention of the biggest names in the sport after the Iranian chess referee. tweeted about the incident again on Sunday.
American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura recently tweeted “#WomenLifeFreedom #IStandWithUkraine” in response to a message about Bayat. cheep.
Meanwhile, chess superstar Magnus Carlsen’s coach, Peter Heine Nielsen tweeted: “The chess world needs to make a decision. Whose side are we really on?”
Bayat, who now also works in primary schools teaching chess, said the support he has received has been “heartwarming”, as it was when he first sought asylum in England in 2020.
“At first I was trying to support Iranian women. I think that’s important and it’s really nice to see other people supporting me for doing the right thing,” she said.