Shohreh Bayat: Iranian chess referee fears ostracism over her activism as she challenges Russian chief of game’s governing body FIDE
Chess referee three years after fleeing Iran Shohreh Bayat fears being further banned after challenging the game’s governing body and president, Russia’s former deputy prime minister, over her choice of clothing at a tournament in October.
In 2020, Bayat was criticized in Iran for not wearing the correct headscarf during the Women’s World Chess Championship in China and Russia. She refused to bow to the pressure of the regime, but has therefore not returned home for fear of punishment.
Now, three years later, Bayat has wrong-footed the International Chess Federation (FIDE) and its president for wearing clothing in support of the Iranian protests and the people of Ukraine.
Bayat, 35, who now lives in London with her husband, recently took part in the Fischer Random World Chess Championship 2022 in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October.
The tournament was another opportunity for Bayat to manage some of the sport’s biggest stars, although it came at a difficult time as protests spread across her home country of Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini.
The 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman died in mid-September after being detained by the country’s vice squad, allegedly for failing to adhere to the country’s conservative dress code, sparking outrage over a series of grievances against the regime.
“It reminded me of my own story,” Bayat told CNN. “So I decided to stand up for women’s rights in Iran. During the tournament I wore a t-shirt with the motto of the Iranian people ‘WomanLifeFreedom’ and I wanted to stand 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 to CNN, FIDE said that “arbitrators at top events are required to dress appropriately and discreetly” and that Bayat “disregarded direct instructions given to her to stop wearing slogans or mottos.”
According to Bayat, no such rules can be found in FIDE’s handbook and says no dress code has been given for the event in Iceland.
The arbitrator’s handbook does say that officials must “follow the dress code” and that they must be “well dressed, to help improve the image of chess as a sport”. CNN has reached out to FIDE to clarify the dress code expected for the October event.
Frustrated by being asked 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 she was again asked by an official to take it off, but this time she was told the request came from FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, who was previously Russia’s deputy prime minister and who attended the tournament in Iceland.
Bayat said Dvorkovich never spoke to her personally about the T-shirt, despite being in the same room as her when she wore it.
However, Dvorkovich sent her 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 responded quickly, but then deleted her “emotional” response.
Bayat then informed Dvorkovich that she would not be wearing the T-shirt the next day, although she wanted to do the “right thing”.
Considering that of FIDE charter stating that it is “committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and will strive to promote the protection of these rights,” Bayat said she concluded she had not broken any rules.
“I thought hard and realized that it was not me who made chess political, but Arkady,” said Bayat.
“I followed the rules of FIDE, but Arkady broke them by forbidding me to stand up for women’s rights in Iran.”
FIDE refuted any idea that politics played a role in Dvorkovich’s request to Bayat.
“We weren’t judging her views or her activism, but the platform and the moment she chose it,” FIDE told CNN.
The next day, Bayat, who has not seen her parents since she left Iran more than three years ago, said she bought and wore a blue-and-yellow outfit in support of the Ukrainian people who fought against the Russian invasion, and also in memory of the 176 persons who were killed when Iran said it had unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian plane that crashed near Tehran in 2020.
Iran’s chess referee seeks asylum in UK
She says nothing has been said 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, despite the organization recognizing her as the best female arbitrator in Europe in 2022.
Bayat said she was initially removed from the Arbitrator’s Commission – a register of all qualified arbitrators – and in a report seen on CNN, a top FIDE official told her it was because of her outfits in Iceland.
Her name is currently in the database, and FIDE told CNN that Bayat is still very much in the running to officiate future events, but that it “has more international referees than world events, so we need to set up a rotation.”
FIDE President Dvorkovich was first elected in 2018 and was re-elected to a second term in August. Previously, the 50-year-old was Russia’s deputy prime minister between 2012 and 2018, following a stint as top economic adviser to the Kremlin.
The Kremlin welcomed Dvorkovich’s re-election as FIDE president last year, but he has always maintained that his proximity to the Kremlin would not affect his work for FIDE. questioning the war in Ukraine.
However, Bayat told CNN she believes Dvorkovich will not accept criticism of Iran because of Russia’s ties to the country. Iran Russia continues to support 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 reportedly telling its players not to play against Israeli opponents.
The acting president of the Iranian Chess Federation responded, saying that Iran has consistently adhered to FIDE’s rules and statutes, and that the athletes decide for themselves which events they participate in.
Despite being given a warning, Iranian players are still forfeit games and FIDE has not yet taken concrete action.
“I find it extremely ironic that FIDE considers my human rights t-shirt political, but when the Iranian chess federation repeatedly forces its players not to play against Israel, FIDE remains silent and turns a blind eye,” said Bayat.
When asked by CNN whether it was confident 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 attitude and activities, all FIDE officials must observe political neutrality while on duty, and of all the official positions one can hold, that of arbitrator is the one that holds higher standards of integrity, neutrality, and discretion. FIDE said in a statement to CNN.
“No matter how noble or uncontroversial the cause, activism in that role is inappropriate and unprofessional. Indeed, she was asked not to wear slogans while acting as an arbitrator and explained why.
Bayat’s activism has caught the attention of the biggest names in the sport after the Iranian chess referee tweeted again on Sunday about the incident.
US grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura recently tweeted “#WomenLifeFreedom #IStandWithUkraine” in response to a post about Bayat’s tweet.
Meanwhile, chess superstar Magnus Carlsen’s coach Peter Heine Nielsen tweeted: “The chess world has to make a decision. Which side are we actually on?”
Bayat, who now also teaches chess in primary schools, said the support she has received has been “heartwarming”, just like when she first applied for asylum in England in 2020.
“I initially tried to support Iranian women. I think that’s important and it’s really nice to see other people supporting me to do the right thing,” she said.