LONDON: A chess referee from Iran has fled to the UK following concerns that she could face arrest and detention after images circulated that appeared to show her without her headscarf in China.
Shohreh Bayat, 32, has denied that she was not wearing the headscarf, insisting that it was loosely in place over her hair. The controversy took place at the women’s world chess championships in Shanghai.
The hijab has been legally required for women’s dress in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Some women have challenged the authorities in recent years by wearing loose headscarves, or by discarding the hijab entirely at public demonstrations.
Punishment for women without the headscarf is severe. Earlier this year, Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for defending women who peacefully protest the regime’s repressive hijab laws.
Other women in Iran were recently charged with “inciting prostitution” for not wearing headscarves, with Amnesty International describing a “worrying trend of crackdowns against women human rights defenders in Iran.”
Bayat told BBC Radio 4: “Iranian media used a photograph of me from an angle that they couldn’t see my headscarf, and they reported that I had no headscarf.”
She said: “The hijab is something that hurts me. I don’t believe in it and it’s not optional, it’s just forced by the government. We have to wear it. I believe it’s a tool of misogynistic oppression.”
She added: “My family live in Iran. I’m married. I couldn’t (go) back, and I had no chance to say goodbye to my family, to my husband. I don’t know when I can reach them again.”
No details are currently available on the wellbeing and whereabouts of her family. Bayat said she would face extreme punishment, such as a lashing, if she returned to Iran, as the authorities would want to make an example of her.
She told the BBC that many Iranian women do not have the option of removing the hijab, so they resort to wearing a loose headscarf.
After images began circulating on social media, Bayat fled from China to Russia, where she flew from Vladivostok to the UK. She said in Britain “I can be myself … I’m free now.”