After leaving Iran three years ago, Shohreh Bayat, a chess referee, is concerned about facing even more exclusion for speaking out against the game’s governing body and its president, who is a former deputy prime minister of Russia. She spoke out about her clothing choice at a tournament in October.
In 2020, Bayat faced criticism in Iran for not adhering to the dress code at the Women’s World Chess Championship in China and Russia. Despite pressure from the regime, she stood her ground and has since chosen not to return home due to concerns about potential punishment.
After three years, Bayat has caused controversy with the International Chess Federation (FIDE) and its president for wearing attire in solidarity with the Iranian demonstrations and the Ukrainian citizens.
In October, Bayat, who is 35 years old and currently residing in London with her spouse, served as the official for the 2022 Fischer Random World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Bayat had the chance to referee top athletes at the tournament, but it coincided with a challenging period as Iran faced widespread protests following the passing of Mahsa Amini.
A 22-year-old woman from Kurdistan, Iran passed away in September while being held by the country’s morality police for reportedly not following the conservative dress code. This incident has sparked widespread outrage and brought attention to various issues with the regime.
“I was reminded of my personal experience,” Bayat shared with CNN. “This motivated me to advocate for women’s rights in Iran. Throughout the tournament, I proudly wore a t-shirt with the message ‘WomanLifeFreedom,’ in solidarity with the Iranian people.”
According to Bayat, she was asked by a FIDE official, unofficially, to refrain from wearing the t-shirt after the first day.
FIDE stated to CNN that at high-level events, arbiters must adhere to appropriate attire and conduct, and that Bayat refused to follow explicit instructions to cease displaying slogans or mottos.
Bayat stated that FIDE’s arbiter handbook does not contain these regulations and she clarified that no specific dress code was provided for the event in Iceland.
The handbook for referees states that they are required to adhere to the dress code and present themselves in appropriate attire, in order to enhance the reputation of chess as a sport. CNN has contacted FIDE for further clarification on the dress code expected for the October event.
Feeling annoyed by the demand to refrain from wearing the slogan, Bayat stated that she concluded she was not violating any regulations, therefore she chose to wear it once more the following day.
Bayat reveals that she was once again requested by an authority figure to remove her hijab, but this time the request supposedly came from FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich. Dvorkovich, who previously held a position as Russia’s deputy prime minister, was in attendance at the tournament in Iceland.
According to Bayat, Dvorkovich did not personally discuss the t-shirt with her, even though they were in the same room when she wore it.
Dvorkovich, however, sent a message to her on WhatsApp – which CNN has seen – asking Bayat to refrain from using official FIDE events for political reasons.
Bayat was upset by Dvorkovich’s request and claims she promptly replied, but later deleted her emotionally-charged response.
Bayat then informed Dvorkovich she would not wear the t-shirt the next day, though she wanted to do the “right thing.”
According to FIDE’s charter, which states a commitment to upholding internationally recognized human rights and promoting their protection, Bayat determined that she had not broken any rules.
“I pondered deeply and came to the realization that it was not I who was making chess political, but rather Arkady,” stated Bayat.
“I adhered to FIDE regulations, but Arkady was violating them by preventing me from advocating for women’s rights in Iran.”
FIDE denied any suggestion that politics influenced Dvorkovich’s request to Bayat.
FIDE stated to CNN that they were not evaluating her beliefs or actions, but rather the timing and platform she utilized for them.
The next day, Bayat, who hasn’t seen her parents in over three years since leaving Iran, shared that she purchased a blue and yellow outfit to show her support for the Ukrainian people fighting against the Russian invasion. She also wore it in memory of the 176 individuals who lost their lives in the unintentional shooting down of a Ukrainian plane near Tehran in 2020, according to Iran.
According to Bayat, she was not informed about the blue and yellow outfit, but she has not received any invitations to FIDE events since leaving the tournament in Iceland. Despite being recognized as the top female arbiter in Europe for 2022 by the organization, she has not been invited to any further events.
Bayat stated that she was first taken off the arbiter commission, which is a list of all eligible arbiters. In a message witnessed by CNN, a high-ranking FIDE representative informed her that this was due to her attire in Iceland.
The database currently includes her name and FIDE informed CNN that Bayat is still eligible to oversee future events. However, due to having more International Arbiters than world events, a rotation system needs to be established.
Connections between the FIDE President and the Kremlin.
In 2018, Dvorkovich was initially chosen as the FIDE President and was later re-elected in August for a second term. Prior to this, the 50-year-old held positions as Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister from 2012 to 2018 and as the top economic adviser for the Kremlin.
The Kremlin expressed their approval of Dvorkovich’s reelection as FIDE president last year. However, Dvorkovich has consistently stated that his relationship with the Kremlin would not affect his duties for FIDE. He also mentioned that he was among the highest-ranking officials in Russia to raise concerns about the conflict in Ukraine.
Bayat stated to CNN that she thinks Dvorkovich is unwilling to acknowledge negative feedback about Iran because of Russia’s affiliation with the nation. This is evidenced by Iran’s ongoing provision of military assistance to Russia for the conflict in Ukraine.
She cites FIDE’s treatment of the Iranian Chess Federation as additional proof of this.
In 2020, Dvorkovich sent a letter to Iran, urging them to follow FIDE’s regulations. This came after reports that Iran instructed their players not to compete against Israelis.
The current leader of Iran’s Chess Federation replied, stating that Iran has consistently followed FIDE’s regulations and guidelines, and that the players themselves choose which competitions to partake in.
Even though they were warned, Iranian players continue to voluntarily lose games and FIDE has not yet implemented tangible measures.
Bayat expressed his irony at FIDE’s labeling of his human rights t-shirt as political, while simultaneously remaining silent and ignoring the repeated actions of the Iran Chess Federation to prevent their players from competing against Israel.
When CNN inquired about the possibility of Dvorkovich facing pressure from Russian authorities regarding Bayat’s support of the Iranian protests, FIDE responded by expressing complete trust and confidence in him.
FIDE stated to CNN that although they respect Ms. Bayat’s political views and actions, all FIDE officials must maintain political impartiality while carrying out their duties. They also emphasized that the role of an arbiter requires the highest level of integrity, neutrality, and confidentiality.
“Engaging in activism while fulfilling a role, regardless of the cause’s righteousness or lack of controversy, is not suitable or professional. She was specifically advised to refrain from displaying any slogans while acting as an arbiter and provided an explanation for this request.”
Bayat’s advocacy has caught the eye of top figures in the sport, following her tweet about the incident on Sunday.
US chess champion Hikaru Nakamura recently posted on Twitter, showing support for Ukraine with the hashtag #WomenLifeFreedom. This was in response to a tweet by Bayat.
“The chess community must come to a decision – which side do we truly support?” tweeted Peter Heine Nielsen, the coach of chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen.
Bayat, who currently teaches chess in primary schools, expressed gratitude for the support she has received. This support has been especially meaningful to her since her initial arrival in England as an asylum seeker in 2020.
She stated that her initial goal was to show support for Iranian women, which she believes is crucial. She expressed gratitude for the fact that others are also supporting her in this endeavor.