Chess star who fled Iran after shedding headscarf hails ‘courage’ of protesters

Mitra Hejazipour, who is now living in France after removing head covering at 2019 tournament, wants to use her platform to ‘show Iranian women that they are not alone’

French-Iranian chess player Mitra Hejazipour watches Iranian news at home in Paris, France, on September 15, 2023. (JOEL SAGET/AFP)
French-Iranian chess player Mitra Hejazipour watches Iranian news at home in Paris, France, on September 15, 2023. (JOEL SAGET/AFP)

PARIS (AFP) — Mitra Hejazipour, one of the greatest chess players Iran has ever produced, knows what courage is after removing her headscarf in defiance of the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women at a tournament.

Now living in exile in France after being expelled from the Iranian team at the time, she says she is in awe of the bravery of Iranians who poured into the streets one year ago after the police custody death of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for allegedly violating the dress code.

Hejazipour, 30, who received French citizenship in March, has enjoyed immense success on the board since arriving in France. This year she won the French chess championships and helped her team to third place at the world team championships.

But she told AFP in an interview that on the first anniversary of Amini’s death she cannot take her mind off the situation in her home country, caught between hope that protesters could achieve a breakthrough and fear of repression against them.

“There are many reasons for people to push and protest against this regime, even if it costs them their lives or they are imprisoned,” she said.

“I see the courage. I see that in fact, they are suffocating. It’s about to explode. People don’t think too much about the consequences.”

File: Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, October 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images)

‘Feeling of freedom’

The first time that Hejazipour publicly appeared without her headscarf was in a photo taken in Germany, published on her Instagram account in February 2018, she said.

Inspired by women who were taking off their obligatory headscarves and putting them on sticks in Iran, she said she wanted “to have this feeling of freedom when you can feel the wind blowing through your hair.”

However, she said she had to remove the post following threatening messages sent by the Iranian regime.

She then removed the headscarf in competition during the Blitz Chess World Championships in Moscow in December 2019.

Hejazipour became the second Iranian player to be expelled from the team for this reason, two years after Dorsa Derakhshani, who is now competing for the United States.

“It was chess,” which she started “at six years old with my father,” that “allowed me this freedom,” said Hejazipour, who was considered a chess prodigy before she was even in her teens.

“I was lucky because I traveled a lot and talked with people from different cultures and religions,” she said.

File: Iranian chess players Mitra Hejazipour (left) and Sara Khademalsharieh play at the Chess Federation in the capital Tehran, Iran, on October 10, 2016. (ATTA KENARE/AFP)

‘Fear and hope’

From France, she said she wants to “show Iranian women that they are not alone” by participating in events and talking about “the situation in Iran,” saying it is “the least I can do.”

“I think that the regime is not giving up and will never give up, because the hijab is the basis of the Iranian Islamic regime.

“But women try to wear the veil less and less. When we look at images and videos from Iran, we see that there are fewer women wearing the veil. That, I think, shows that courage has developed. It’s not that the regime is giving up.”

On what the outcome of the protest movement could be, she added: “From what I saw last year and what I know about this regime, I have fear, of course, but I have hope at the same time. Because they can’t kill everyone, they can’t imprison everyone.”

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