LONDON: An Iranian chess player who played in a tournament without a hijab told The Telegraph that she fled to Spain after refusing an order by Tehran to film an apology video.
Sara Khadem is the world’s 17th best female chess player and the first Iranian woman to become an international master.
A viral photograph of Khadem competing in a tournament in Kazakhstan without a head covering made her a symbol of the country’s ongoing anti-regime protests.
The 25-year-old said she was told to blame her decision to not cover her head during the tournament on Western pressure.
“I wasn’t going to do that,” Khadem said.
Although she previously only covered her head at international tournaments during formal presentations and official photographs, she began to feel that it was hypocritical.
“This time, I felt that if I did as I was doing before, I would be disrespecting the people,” she said.
Khadem has been outspoken against her country’s government in recent years. In 2019, she expressed support for a young Iranian chess star who had refused to accept Tehran’s policy requiring players to forfeit matches against Israeli opponents.
In January 2020, Khadem announced her retirement from the national chess team in protest of Iran’s shooting down of a Ukrainian commercial plane, an incident that claimed the lives of 176 people.
She also used hashtags to express solidarity with anti-regime protesters in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death.
Khadem, who is still in Spain with her husband and son, says she misses her parents back home, whom she said she used to visit “almost every day.”
“I hope that I will be the only one held responsible for what I did,” she said.
“We feel very welcome in Spain, but we have left some of the most important things in life in Iran, so there are mixed feelings,” she added.
Khadem hopes to break into the world’s top 10 from her new base in Spain, but she also wants to represent Iran in tournaments as an individual player, The Telegraph reported.
“I’m a chess player. I’m not a political figure. As a chess player, I have some responsibilities towards what is happening around me, but chess is the first thing in my life. I don’t see myself as an activist,” she said.