A leading British female chess judge originally from Iran has been reprimanded for wearing a T-shirt with the anti-hijab slogan ‘Women Life Freedom’.
Shohreh Bayat had been officiating at the Fischer Random World Chess Championship in Reykjavik last October when the row – just made public – blew up.
Officials at FIDE – the International Chess Federation – described the T-shirt as “inappropriate and unprofessional”.
Furious Shohreh responded by saying there is no dress code for chess arbiters.
She said: “I am an arbiter, I am the first person who follows and who has to follow rules and regulations, as long as they exist.
“The whole point is that they cannot ask me to follow unwritten rules. When it is written, I would be the first person to follow it.”
The phrase – ‘Women Life Freedom’ – has become an international rallying cry for supporters of anti-government protests in Iran.
The movement began after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini following her arrested by morality police for not wearing her hijab properly.
Shohreh, 35, fled to seek asylum in Britain in 2020 and is one of the world’s top international chess arbiters.
The prestigious title awarded by the International Chess Federation (FIDE) is rarely given and there are strict criteria, with the highest ranking of Grade A.
She was awarded the title when she was just 25 and is the only Grade-A arbiter from Asia.
She was the chief arbiter of the Women’s World Chess Championship 2020 (WWCC) and generated controversy in Iran when she left her hijab around her neck in what was seen as a breach of the Islamic dress code.
On that occasion, the chess Federation demanded that she retake the photograph, this time wearing the hijab, and apologise.
She refused, saying that forcing women to wear it is misogynistic.
The controversy ended when she was given permission to referee under the English flag, meaning she no longer needed to follow hijab rules.
She has officiated at a large number of high-profile events, and in 2021 was awarded an International Women of Courage Award for defying Iranian government threats over her refusal to wear the hijab.
Last year she was declared the best European female arbiter by FIDE, and is a member of the English national chess team playing for England in the European Team Championships in 2021 in Slovenia.
She is a board member of the English chess Federation and a counsellor at the FIDE Arbiters Commission.
The T-shirt row broke out after FIDE’s chief communisations officer David Llada said in a statement: “While we respect Ms. Bayat’s political stance and activities, any FIDE officials need to follow political neutrality while on duty, and of all the official positions one can hold, that of an arbiter is the one that demands higher standards of integrity, neutrality, and discretion.
“No matter how noble or uncontroversial the cause is, doing activism from that role is inappropriate and unprofessional.”
In response, the next day, Shohreh wore a yellow skirt and a blue top like the Ukrainian flag to “show solidarity with the Ukrainian people”.
Her outfit – she said – was a protest at Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which shot down a Ukrainian Airlines in 2020, killing all 176 passengers and crew.
Paul Meyer-Dunker, the President of the Berlin Chess Society, said on Twitter that the FIDE request to Bayat to change her attire was ‘contrary to the values of sport, the chess world, and the FIDE Charter.’
Section 4.3 of the charter says “FIDE is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.”
Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Llada told Chess.com that FIDE was now working on a dress code.