The mandatory hijab rule in Iran continues to have significant implications for Iranian female athletes participating in international sports events. Recently, chess grandmaster Sara Khadem made headlines when she fled to Spain after competing in an international tournament without wearing the Islamic veil, resulting in warnings from Iranian authorities not to return to the country. Khadem’s situation reflects similar cases involving other Iranian athletes who have faced repercussions for challenging the hijab rule during international competitions, shedding light on the ongoing struggles for women’s rights and freedom of expression in Iran’s sports arena.
Khadem, whose full name is Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, was born in Iran in 1997. She is a chess grandmaster and has represented Iran at international tournaments. In December 2022, she participated in the FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Kazakhstan, defying the mandatory hijab requirement for women in Iran. Subsequently, she was warned not to return to the country, leading her to seek refuge in Spain with her husband and son in January 2023. Her request for Spanish citizenship was granted by the Spanish Council of Ministers on July 26.
Human rights groups have welcomed the decision to grant Khadem Spanish nationality as a victory for women’s rights and freedom of expression. However, her case is not an isolated incident, as similar challenges to the hijab rule have been faced by other Iranian athletes.
Siblings Dorsa and Borna Derakhshani, both Iranian chess players, were banned from representing Iran in chess tournaments after competing in the Women’s World Chess Championship in 2017 without wearing the Islamic veil. They received criticism and threats from Iranian authorities, leading them to pursue their chess careers in the U.S. and Spain, respectively. Dorsa decided to play under the United States flag.
Shohreh Bayat, an Iranian chess arbiter, faced controversy when she refused to wear a hijab during the 2020 Women’s World Chess Championship in Shanghai. As a result, she received backlash and threats from Iranian authorities, considering seeking asylum outside of Iran.
Another example is Atousa Pourkashiyan, another Iranian chess player reprimanded by the Iranian Chess Federation for not wearing a hijab during international competitions. She faced consequences for her decision and later retired from playing chess for Iran.
In other sports, Kimia Alizadeh, an Iranian taekwondo athlete, gained international recognition by winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Despite her success, Iranian officials criticized and threatened her for not wearing a hijab during her matches. In 2020, Alizadeh announced her defection from Iran, citing the oppressive treatment of women in the country.
These incidents highlight the ongoing struggle of Iranian female athletes against the mandatory hijab rule and underscore the importance of fighting for women’s rights and freedom of expression in sports and beyond.
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