Meet Sara Khadem - The Iranian chess player who has fled to Spain after breaking Iran’s hijab diktat

Sara Khadem is believed to have received threatening calls during the World Rapid and Blitz championships, asking her not to return to Iran after choosing to ditch the hijab during the tournament in Almaty.

[File] Sara Khadem with Magnus Carlsen

[File] Sara Khadem with Magnus Carlsen | Photo Credit: Instagram/Sara Khadem

Sara Khadem is believed to have received threatening calls during the World Rapid and Blitz championships, asking her not to return to Iran after choosing to ditch the hijab during the tournament in Almaty.

Sara Khadem (full name: Sarasadat Khademalsharieh) is an Iranian chess player who, as it turns out, is the latest sportsperson under fire for going against the Iranian government’s hijab mandate for women.

The 25-year-old participated in the without the hijab, the traditional headscarf which is mandatory for women as per Iran’s strict dress code. This prompted government officials to almost ‘disown’ the athlete with a clarification from the government claiming she was not representing the Islamic republic.

 Sara Khadem of Iran 

 Sara Khadem of Iran 

“This chess player participated freely and at her own expense” in the tournament, Hassan Tamini, head of Iran’s chess federation, was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

The Iranian Woman Grandmaster’s choice to participate without the hijab is being seen by some as a show of support for the protests that have gripped Iran since the September 16 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, 22.

This photograph taken near the French National Assembly in Paris on December 6, 2022 shows placards with portraits of the victims of Iran‘s repression. - More than 200 people have been killed in Iran since nationwide protests erupted over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini.

This photograph taken near the French National Assembly in Paris on December 6, 2022 shows placards with portraits of the victims of Iran‘s repression. - More than 200 people have been killed in Iran since nationwide protests erupted over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini. | Photo Credit: AFP

Amini had been arrested by Tehran morality police for an alleged breach of the country’s strict dress code for women.

Iranian female athletes are required to abide by the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women, mainly by covering their heads when representing their country at international events.

Sara Khadem

Sara Khadem

“We didn’t expect this chess player to do this because she had participated in the previous tournaments in compliance with the standards”, Tamini said.

Khadem is reported to have received calls warning her not to return to Iran for competing without a hijab at Almaty.

The source also said Khadem’s relatives and parents, who are in Iran, had also received threats, without giving further details.

Khadem, who is also known as Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, has reportedly defected to Spain.

Khadem, who is also known as Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, has reportedly defected to Spain.

Khadem is ranked 804 in the world, according to the International Chess Federation website. The website for the Dec. 25-30 event listed her as a participant in both the Rapid and Blitz competitions.

Khadem, who is also known as Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, arrived in Spain on Tuesday, the source said.

“This chess player participated freely and at her own expense” in the tournament, Hassan Tamini, head of Iran’s chess federation, was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

“This chess player participated freely and at her own expense” in the tournament, Hassan Tamini, head of Iran’s chess federation, was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

She has not responded to Reuters request for comment. Newspapers including Le Figaro and El Pais reported last week that Khadem would not be returning to Iran and moving to Spain.

The phone calls led to organisers deciding to provide security with the cooperation of Kazakh police, resulting in four bodyguards being stationed outside Khadem’s hotel room, the source said.

Others in the line of fire

The protests mark one of the boldest challenges to Iran’s leadership since its 1979 revolution and have drawn in Iranians from all walks of life.

A young protester with red ink on her face yells after cutting her hair with scissors as an act of solidarity with women in Iran during a demonstration against the death of Mahsa Amini. Amini, 22, was arrested by Iranian authorities in Tehran on September 13 for not wearing her headscarf properly and died three days afterwards, apparently due to a severe head injury. Her death has sparked demonstrations across Iran nationwide that have spiralled into violence and left dozens of protesters dead.

A young protester with red ink on her face yells after cutting her hair with scissors as an act of solidarity with women in Iran during a demonstration against the death of Mahsa Amini. Amini, 22, was arrested by Iranian authorities in Tehran on September 13 for not wearing her headscarf properly and died three days afterwards, apparently due to a severe head injury. Her death has sparked demonstrations across Iran nationwide that have spiralled into violence and left dozens of protesters dead. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Women have played a prominent role, removing and in some cases burning headscarves, while protesters have taken heart from what they have seen as shows of support from both female and male Iranian athletes. 

Last month Iran denounced a speed skater, Niloufar Mardani, after she attended a competition in Turkey not wearing a headscarf, local media said at the time.

[FILE] Niloufar Mardani of Iran in action during the Roller Sports Women’s 10000m Points+Elimination Race at the Guangzhou Velodrome during day twelve of the 16th Asian Games Guangzhou 2010 on November 24, 2010 in Guangzhou, China.

[FILE] Niloufar Mardani of Iran in action during the Roller Sports Women’s 10000m Points+Elimination Race at the Guangzhou Velodrome during day twelve of the 16th Asian Games Guangzhou 2010 on November 24, 2010 in Guangzhou, China. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Mardani participated “without authorisation,” the sports ministry said, quoted by Iran’s Fars news agency.

In October, climber Elnaz Rekabi wore only a headband during a competition event at the Asian Championships in Seoul.

Alarm grew on October 18, 2022 over the wellbeing of Iranian sports climber Elnaz Rekabi after she competed at an event in South Korea without a hijab in what some saw as a gesture of solidarity with the women-led protests at home. Rekabi, 33, in her first comment since the event on October 16 apologised on Instagram for the “concerns” caused and insisted that her bare-headed appearance had been “unintentional”. She had come fourth representing Iran in the boulder and lead combined event at the Asian Championships in Seoul. 

Alarm grew on October 18, 2022 over the wellbeing of Iranian sports climber Elnaz Rekabi after she competed at an event in South Korea without a hijab in what some saw as a gesture of solidarity with the women-led protests at home. Rekabi, 33, in her first comment since the event on October 16 apologised on Instagram for the “concerns” caused and insisted that her bare-headed appearance had been “unintentional”. She had come fourth representing Iran in the boulder and lead combined event at the Asian Championships in Seoul. 

She returned to a hero’s welcome at the airport in Tehran, where dozens of people cheered and clapped.

The athlete had apologised over the incident and, in comments to state media, insisted her headscarf accidentally slipped off.

Elnaz REKABI of Iran in action during Women Lead Climbing Olympic Qualification Event on November 29, 2019 in Toulouse, France.

Elnaz REKABI of Iran in action during Women Lead Climbing Olympic Qualification Event on November 29, 2019 in Toulouse, France. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sport has become a sensitive arena during the protests, with several prominent female athletes and male footballers expressing their support.

The Woman Grandmaster profile picture on the FIDE website shows Khademalsharieh wearing a dark blue headscarf that does not cover all her hair.

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