Hijab photo leaves Iranian chess referee in diplomatic limbo
It was a dream come true for Shohreh Bayat to referee the final of the Women's World Chess Championship earlier this year but what should have been a career highlight quickly turned into a nightmare.
The Iranian chess arbiter is yet to return home to her family following the conclusion of the tournament in January, fearing punishment after she was criticized online for not wearing the appropriate headscarf.
Bayat's concerns stem from a photograph taken from the event which appears to show her not wearing a hijab. The picture was subsequently shared and Iranian websites reportedly condemned her for what some described as protesting the country's compulsory law.
"I knew that I had to cover my hair so I did that like many Iranian women but I was wearing a loose hijab because I don't believe in the hijab," Bayat told CNN Sport. "Actually, I hate the hijab. I was just trying to wear it somehow to show that I am not a religious person and I was wearing it in a modern way. By Iranian standards, it was totally okay."
The photographs in question were taken at the first stage of the chess championship in Shanghai, China, before Bayat flew to Vladivostok, Russia, for the second leg between Ju Wenjun and Aleksandra Goryachkina.
While trying to focus on the job at hand, Bayat was subsequently seeking reassurances from the Iranian Chess Federation who had alerted her to the apparent storm brewing at home.
She said the federation had initially asked for a more appropriate picture of her at the tournament, which Bayat took offense to. She then says the federation told her to post an apology on her social media channels. She agreed under the condition that it would guarantee her safety but she said the federation refused and purged her picture from their website.
As a result, Bayat decided not to wear what she calls the "misogynistic" hijab anymore and chose not to return to Iran.
CNN reached out to the Iranian Chess Federation on multiple occasions but has not received a response.
Bayat says she has often been accompanied by a minder who ensures the country's rules are followed when she works abroad but says economic issues have seen that role reduced.
Fearing such punishment in Iran and making the most of a British visa she had obtained for an upcoming tournament in Gibraltar, Bayat opted to fly to the United Kingdom after the final.
She is currently seeking asylum in the country and is being looked after by the wider chess community.
Despite being "broken" by her situation, she says she's been blown away by the global support she's received since her story was shared around the world. "In chess, we have a motto, we say we are one family," she added, visibly emotional. "Since I came here, I felt that I received many many positive impressions from people. It's not easy to describe it in words.
"I can't even keep up because there are many, many people who helped me here. So I don't know how to name them because all of them were nice to me."