Iranian chess referee who ditched her country over hijab reveals Jewish roots

Shohreh Bayat, seeking asylum in the UK, tells Telegraph that for many years she hid the fact that her paternal grandmother was a Jew who arrived in Iran from Azerbaijan

Shohreh Bayat, chief arbiter for the match between Aleksandra Goryachkina of Russia and Ju Wenjun of China, is seen before the match during the 2020 International Chess Federation (FIDE) Women's World Chess Championship in Shanghai on January 11, 2020. (Stringer/AFP)
Shohreh Bayat, chief arbiter for the match between Aleksandra Goryachkina of Russia and Ju Wenjun of China, is seen before the match during the 2020 International Chess Federation (FIDE) Women's World Chess Championship in Shanghai on January 11, 2020. (Stringer/AFP)

A world-class Iranian chess referee who made headlines after announcing she would not return home following an international championship as she no longer wanted to keep her hair covered with a hijab, has revealed that she has Jewish roots.

Shoreh Bayat, 33, told the Telegraph newspaper that she kept her heritage hidden all her life while in Iran, but this year, as she waits for asylum in Britain, was able to celebrate her first Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year.

“All my life was about showing a fake image of myself to society because they wanted me to be an image of a religious Muslim woman, which I wasn’t,” she told the paper from her temporary home outside London at the family of a chess player friend.

Bayat, one of the top chess referees in the world, was born in northern Iran and said it was her father who encouraged her to take up chess at the age of nine. By age 12 she was a national champion in Iran, where chess is a state-sponsored sport. She went on to became general-secretary of the Iran Chess Federation, as well as becoming Asia’s first top-level chess arbiter.

But there was part of her family’s history that she kept hidden from Iranian authorities. Her paternal grandmother, Mary, was Jewish, arriving in Iran from Baku in Azerbaijan during World War II.

“If they knew that I had a Jewish background, I would never ever be general-secretary of the Iranian Chess Federation,” she said and recalled that she had heard anti-Semitic remarks from chess officials.

Bayat said this year was the first in which she was able to mark Rosh Hashanah, including eating the traditional festive foods of apple and challah bread dipped in honey.

Bayat caused outrage in Iran when she was serving as chief arbiter at the January 2020 Women’s World Chess Championship held in Shanghai and Vladivostok, after a single photograph caught her with her red hijab around her shoulders instead of on her head.

She told the Telegraph that after the match when she returned to her hotel room, she found messages on her mobile phone from concerned people warning her not to return as she would be arrested. By the next day her picture had been removed from the Iranian Chess Federation website.

“It was like I didn’t exist,” she said.

Rather than bucking to demands from hardliners in Iran that she apologize, she went a step further and ditched the scarf entirely for the rest of the tournament. “I knew I couldn’t tolerate it any longer.”

At the conclusion of the tournament, instead of heading home, Bayat took a flight to the UK where she had a valid visa. Upon arrival she requested asylum.

Bayat said she has no regrets over the decision not to return to Iran, even though it meant leaving behind her husband and family, with whom she one day hopes to be reunited.

The International Chess Federation has confirmed that Bayat will be allowed to referee chess as a British official, but she currently has no work permit, as her asylum permit has not been processed, the report said.

Bayat is now waiting for an asylum interview at the British Home Office, but the already backlogged process has been further delayed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Although she was told she would be granted an interview for her case in August, the meeting never materialized.

A Home Office spokesperson told the Telegraph that asylum interviews had been resumed at the end of July and the ministry has “been working to progress as many cases as possible.”

Iranian master chess player Dorsa Derakhshani. (YouTube screenshot)

It is not the first time an Iranian chess player has switched allegiances after refusing to wear the hijab. In October 2017 a woman banned from the Iranian national chess team, allegedly for attending an international competition without wearing an Islamic headscarf, joined the US team instead.

The semi-official ISNA reported at the time that Dorsa Derakhshani refused to wear the hijab, during a February competition in Gibraltar, and joined the US national team.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has required women to wear the hijab in public places.

According to the Telegraph, women have been arrested, forced to make televised confessions, jailed and even tortured for not wearing the hijab in Iran.

Last year, three women were sentenced to a total of 55 years in prison for failure to wear the hijab, the paper reported.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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