Iranian chess player who shunned hijab moves to Spain after reported threats

Source close to Sara Khadem says she was warned to stay away from Iran; Spanish media reports she will settle with husband, child in already owned apartment in undisclosed location

Iranian chess player Sara Khadem competes without a headscarf at a chess tournament in Almaty, Kazakhstan, December 26, 2022. (Lennart Ootes/FIDE)
Iranian chess player Sara Khadem competes without a headscarf at a chess tournament in Almaty, Kazakhstan, December 26, 2022. (Lennart Ootes/FIDE)

An Iranian female chess player who competed abroad without a hijab has fled to Spain after receiving warnings to not return home to Iran, according to a report Tuesday.

Sara Khadem, also known as Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, competed in the Blitz Chess Championships and the FIDE World Rapid last week in Almaty, Kazakhstan, without a hijab, which is compulsory for women under Iranian law.

A source close to the player said she received multiple phone calls telling her to not return to Iran, according to the report in Reuters.

Other callers told her she should come back, with promises to “solve her problem.” Her parents and relatives in Iran have also received threats.

According to the source, because of the phone calls she received, tournament organizers decided to provide Khadem with security and in cooperation with Kazakh police, four security guards were stationed outside her hotel room during her stay in the country.

Khadem, who arrived in Spain Tuesday, intends to settle there along with her husband, film director Ardeshir Ahmadi, and their young child, the Spanish daily El Pais reported.

Sources told El Pais the couple owns an apartment in Spain, but they are keeping quiet about exactly where they plan to live. It was not clear if they intend to apply for asylum or obtain residency.

Two Iranian outlets both published photos of Khadem sans headscarf last week. One outlet posted another photo that showed her wearing a headscarf but did not say whether the photo was taken at the competition in Almaty.

It was the latest in a series of high-profile Iranian women to publicly shun the head covering since the beginning of nationwide protests in August.

Khadem, who is ranked 804th in the world according to the International Chess Federation, but 10th in her home country, has not made any comment.

The protests in Iran were triggered by the September 16 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest for an alleged breach of the strict Iranian dress code for women.

Since the outbreak of demonstrations, female protesters have taken to the streets, burning their headscarves and cutting their hair in defiance of the mandatory head-covering laws.

Khadem joins a growing list of Iranian athletes and sports teams to make public gestures in support of the protest movement.

In October, Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without a headscarf, resulting in her being placed under house arrest and forced to make an apology, according to reports at the time.

Earlier that month, top Tehran soccer club Esteghlal refused to celebrate after winning the Iranian Super Cup, with its player Siavash Yazdani in a post-match interview dedicating the victory to “women and those who lost loved ones.”

Prior to Iran’s opening match against England at the FIFA World Cup, the Iranian national team opted not to sing the national anthem, apparently in solidarity with the protest movement in their homeland.

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