By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
GENEVA (Reuters) – Iranian chess referee Shohreh Bayat says a gesture of solidarity with female compatriots at a tournament in Iceland has caused a feud with the game’s global body and seen her kicked off a commission.
Bayat wore a “Women, Life, Freedom” T-shirt at a prestigious tournament in October, soon after protests began in Iran over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for breaking strict Islamic dress code.
“I don’t think it’s normal to stay quiet about this,” Bayat, 35, told Reuters in a video interview. She is among a string of sports figures to clash with authorities over the hijab policy and express solidarity with anti-government demonstrators.
“This is a big human rights matter. I think if we stay quiet about these things, we cannot forgive ourselves,” she added.
Bayat, who was also accused by Iran of violating hijab practice at a tournament in 2020, said the International Chess Federation (FIDE) had removed her from its arbiters’ commission after she angered its President Arkady Dvorkovich.
The Iranian said Dvorkovich asked her to change her attire in Iceland, after another chess official had raised the issue. She reappeared at the tournament in a yellow suit and blue blouse: the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
FIDE confirmed Dvorkovich had requested she not wear the shirt about women’s rights. The federation said it respected Bayat’s political activities but that she “disregarded direct instructions given to her to stop wearing slogans or mottos.”
“No matter how noble or uncontroversial the cause is, doing activism from that role is inappropriate and unprofessional,” it said in a statement to Reuters.
Tehran casts the protesters as pawns of a Western-led push to overthrow the government.
Bayat accused Dvorkovich, a Russian deputy prime minister from 2012 to 2018, of succumbing to geopolitics.
“Iran and Russia are very united in the war against Ukraine,” she said. “When I was told by Dvorkovich to take off my T-shirt, that was the reason probably.
“My T-shirt was not political at all … It’s one of the most beautiful women’s rights messages in the world.”
According to a message seen by Reuters, a senior FIDE official told Bayat she had been removed from the commission because Dvorkovich was “furious” with her.
Dvorkovich did not respond to a request for comment.
FIDE said it had not discussed any disciplinary action against Bayat and values her as an arbiter.
Bayat lives in London, fearing for her safety after photos of her at the 2020 tournament in Russia brought criticism in Iranian state media.
Bayat said at the time that she does not agree with the hijab, but that she had been wearing a headscarf during the championship’s first matches, although it had been loose and was not visible from some angles in photographs.
Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution, all women are required to wear a hijab in public, including sportswomen abroad. Women who break the dress code can be publicly berated, fined or arrested.
Bayat was awarded the International Women of Courage Award by the United States in 2021 and has since used her platform to advocate for Iranian women.
“When I can, when there is an opportunity, I have to raise the voice of Iranian people,” she said.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)