[Marxism] I loosened my hijab at a chess championship. Now I’m afraid to return to Iran.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 18 06:34:29 MST 2020

Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2020
I loosened my hijab at a chess championship. Now I’m afraid to return to 
By Shohreh Bayat

Shohreh Bayat is an arbiter for the International Chess Federation.

Religious indoctrination starts early in Iran, when you are forced at 
school to learn the Koran. I was a dutiful student, praying assiduously 
while wearing a loose, ugly school uniform, with my hair hidden under a 
big scarf. At age 8, I even won a prize for fasting.

At 9, I was introduced by my father to the beautiful game of chess, 
beloved by ancient Persian poets. Chess requires logic and critical 
thinking — not faith. Slowly, in my teens, I began to question why, if 
God is fair, is there so much pain and suffering in the world?

Even if my faith was fading, as a woman in Iran I had no choice but to 
tolerate the hijab — the Islamic emblem of constant, misogynistic 
oppression. I avoided looking at myself in mirrors. Wearing the 
head-covering was torment enough. When traveling abroad for chess 
tournaments, I admired the young women from other countries who wore 
nice clothes, their hair beautifully styled. I gradually began to spend 
more time in front of the mirror, trying to find ways, within the 
confines of my fabric prison, to appear normal.

Whenever I went abroad, I would make small changes in my appearance, 
perhaps by showing more hair than previously, even if I was careful to 
keep a portion of it concealed. Eventually, I gained a degree of renown 
as an international chess arbiter, working at tournaments around the 
world. I slowly became braver in loosening my hijab on those trips.

In 2017, I was honored to be the first woman ever appointed general 
secretary of a sports federation in Iran. But holding the position meant 
also enduring continual harassment by Iranian Chess Federation officials 
about the hijab. The next year, I resigned in frustration.

That didn’t end the conflicts over the hijab. I continued to travel as 
an arbiter for the International Chess Federation and was pleased to be 
chosen for the Women’s World Chess Championship 2020. When packing to 
travel to Shanghai for the first leg of the championship last month, I 
included several colorful scarves, which was the most daring I could be 
within the confines of Iranian law.

After the first round in Shanghai, I received a message from the Iranian 
Chess Federation asking me to send a “good” photograph from the 
competition. Translation: Photos that I appeared in on foreign websites 
were not hijabi enough for the federation to post on the messaging app 
Telegram in Iran. The loose scarf I wore was actually quite acceptable 
by Iranian standards, but more is demanded of public figures. 
Infuriated, like millions of Iranian women who hate the hijab, I said it 
was the best I could do.

I resolved to wear a “worse” hijab the next day, suspecting that the 
officials would decide that the first-round photo was “good” enough. I 
had no idea how this decision would change my life.

As anticipated, the photo from the first day appeared belatedly on 
Telegram. I had no idea anything was amiss until after the third round, 
when I went back to the hotel, turned on my smartphone and was stunned 
to see that it was teeming with messages. Some had stark warnings: 
“Don’t come back, they will arrest you.” Others included screenshots of 
Iranian media alleging that I hadn’t worn a hijab at all — the photo 
failed to convey that I did indeed wear one, albeit loosely — and, 
worse, had committed the outrage on the anniversary of some protest (the 
date of which I was unaware).

Publicly, the president of the Iranian Chess Federation said that my 
participation in the event had nothing to do with him. Privately, he 
sent messages telling me to write an open letter supporting the hijab. 
Meanwhile, my harmless photo from the first round was purged from 
Telegram, which in Iran is heavily monitored by the government.

How could I write a letter proclaiming what I don’t believe? Was it not 
humiliating enough that I had had to endure this detestable scarf on my 
head every day? The pain was enormous, the tears endless.

The next day, condemned already, I left the scarf behind and entered the 
world with determination and satisfaction. The Iranian media reported, 
without evidence, that I had applied for asylum. (No country was named.) 
I was still at the tournament, with weeks to go, and had a return ticket 
to Tehran. I wanted to go home, but by now it was too dangerous.

As I write to you, I am in Britain — a lovely country, where I have 
received much kindness and generosity from the chess community. I don’t 
know what the future holds.

I have seen many words of support from U.S. embassies around the world. 
That is touching, but also poignant, given that most Iranians can no 
longer enter the United States. Is it really against the law to be born 
Iranian? We are also humans, you know.

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