Shohreh Bayat: Iranian chess arbiter fears ostracism for her activism as she challenges FIDE, the governing body of Russia’s gaming chief


Three years after fleeing Iran, chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat fears further ostracism after challenging the game’s governing body and its chairman, Russia’s former deputy prime minister, over her choice of clothes at a tournament in October.

In 2020, Bayat was criticized in Iran for not wearing the proper headscarf during the Women’s World Chess Championship in China and Russia. She refused to give in to the regime’s pressure but, as a result, did not return home for fear of being punished.

Now, three years later, Bayat has raised the hedgehogs of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) and its president for wearing clothes in support of Iranian protests and the Ukrainian people.

Bayat, 35, who now lives in London with her husband, recently officiated at the 2022 Fischer Random World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland in October.

The tournament was another opportunity for Bayat to officiate some of the sport’s biggest stars, although he came at a difficult time as protests spread in his home country of Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini.

The 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman died in mid-September after being detained by the country’s vice police, allegedly for failing to adhere to the country’s conservative dress code, sparking outrage over a series of grievances with the regime.

“It reminded me of my own story,” Bayat told CNN. “So I decided to defend women’s rights in Iran. During the tournament, I wore a t-shirt with the Iranian people’s motto “WomanLifeFreedom” and wanted to be with them.

Bayat said that after the first day she wore the t-shirt, a FIDE official asked her, unofficially, not to wear it.

In a statement sent to CNN, FIDE said “referees at major events are required to dress with appropriate decor and discretion” and that Bayat “disregarded direct instructions given to him. to stop carrying slogans or mottos”.

According to Bayat, such regulations are not found in the FIDE referees manual and she says that no dress code was given for the event in Iceland.

The umpire’s handbook says that officials must “follow the dress code” and that they must be “properly dressed, which helps to improve the image of chess as a sport”. CNN has reached out to FIDE to clarify the expected dress code for the October event.

Frustrated by the request to stop wearing the slogan, Bayat said she decided she wasn’t breaking any rules, so she wore it again the next day.

Bayat says he was again asked by an official to remove it, but this time he was told the request came from FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich, who was formerly Russia’s deputy prime minister and attended the tournament in Iceland.

Bayat said Dvorkovich never spoke to her about the t-shirt in person, despite being in the same room as her when she wore it.

Dvorkovich, however, sent him a message on WhatsApp – messages seen by CNN – asking Bayat not to use official FIDE events for “political purposes”.

Angered by Dvorkovich’s request, Bayat says she was quick to respond but then deleted her “emotional” response.

Bayat then informed Dvorkovich that she would not be wearing the t-shirt the next day, even if she wanted to do the “right thing”.

Since FIDE’s charter states that it “undertakes to respect all internationally recognized human rights and will endeavor to promote the protection of these rights”, Bayat said that it has decided that she had broken no rules.

“I thought it through and realized that it was not me who was doing political failures but Arkady,” Bayat said.

“I was following FIDE rules, but Arkady was breaking them by banning me from advocating for women’s rights in Iran.”

FIDE has refuted any suggestion that politics played a role in Dvorkovich’s request to Bayat.

“We’re not judging her opinions or her activism, but the platform and timing she chose for it,” FIDE told CNN.

The next day, Bayat, who has not seen his parents since leaving Iran more than three years ago, said he bought a blue and yellow outfit and wore it in support of the Ukrainian people fighting against the Russian invasion, as well as in memory of the 176 people who were killed when Iran said it inadvertently shot down a Ukrainian plane that crashed near Tehran in 2020.

NEWCASTLE, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 11: Iranian chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat poses for a portrait in Newcastle, England on February 11, 2020. Ms Bayat, arbiter for chess governing body FIDE, was presiding over a tournament in China in January when a photo of her appearing not to be wearing a hijab circulated in Iranian media. Comments in the press and online accused her of flouting Iranian law, which requires women to wear headscarves when appearing in public. Seeing this response, Ms. Bayat quickly became afraid to return to her country, fearing that she would be arrested. She is now staying with friends in the UK, where she says she is considering her options, unsure of what the future holds. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

Iranian chess arbiter seeks asylum in UK

She says nothing was told to her about the blue and yellow outfit but, since leaving the tournament in Iceland, Bayat told CNN she has not been invited to another FIDE event, although the organization recognizes her as the best female referee in Europe in 2022.

Bayat said she was initially removed from the referees’ commission – a register of all qualified referees – and, in a message seen by CNN, a senior FIDE official told her it was because of her held in Iceland.

His name is currently listed in the database, and FIDE told CNN that Bayat is still very much in the running to officiate future events, but has “more international referees than world events, so we have to establish a rotation”.

FIDE President Dvorkovich was first elected in 2018 and was re-elected for a second term in August. Previously, the 50-year-old served as Russia’s deputy prime minister between 2012 and 2018 after serving as the Kremlin’s top economic adviser.

The Kremlin welcomed Dvorkovich’s re-election as FIDE president last year, but he always maintained that his closeness to the Kremlin would not impact his work for FIDE and noted that he was one of the most important figures in the Russian establishment to question the war in Ukraine.

However, Bayat told CNN she believes Dvorkovich does not accept Iran’s criticism because of Russia’s ties to the country – Iran continues to support Russia with military aid for the war in Ukraine.

She notes FIDE’s handling of the Iranian Chess Federation as further evidence of this.

Dvorkovich wrote a letter urging Iran to comply with FIDE rules in 2020 after he allegedly told his players not to play against Israeli opponents.

The acting president of the Iranian Chess Federation responded, saying that Iran has consistently abided by FIDE rules and statutes, and that athletes decide for themselves which events to participate in.

Despite a warning, Iranian players are still out and FIDE has yet to take any concrete action.

“I find it extremely ironic that FIDE finds my political human rights t-shirt, but when the Iranian Chess Federation repeatedly forces its players not to play against Israel, FIDE remains silent and turns a blind eye to that,” Bayat said.

Asked by CNN if it was confident that Dvorkovich was working without pressure from Russian authorities regarding Bayat’s support for the Iranian protests, FIDE said it had complete and absolute confidence in him.

“While we respect Ms. Bayat’s political position and activities, all FIDE officials must respect political neutrality in the performance of their duties, and of all official positions they may hold, that of arbitrator is one that demands higher standards of integrity, neutrality, and discretion,” FIDE said in a statement to CNN.

“No matter how noble or uncontroversial the cause, to activism from this role is inappropriate and unprofessional. Indeed, he was asked not to carry any slogans while acting as a referee and explained the reasons why.

Bayat’s activism has caught the attention of the biggest names in sport after the Iranian chess arbiter tweeted about the incident again on Sunday.

US Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura recently tweeted “#WomenLifeFreedom #IStandWithUkraine” in response to a post on Bayat Tweeter.

Meanwhile, the coach of chess superstar Magnus Carlsen, Peter Heine Nielsen tweeted“The chess world has to make up its mind. Whose side are we really on?

Bayat, who now also works in primary schools teaching chess, said the support she received was ‘comforting’, as it was when she first sought asylum in England in 2020.

“Initially, I was trying to support Iranian women. I think it’s important and it’s very nice to see other people supporting me to do the right thing,” she said.


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