Sara Khadem, Iran's open-faced chess queen

In order not to "betray" the protest movement in her country, the Iranian Sara Khadem presented herself without a veil to a chess tournament

Sara Khadem, Iran's open-faced chess queen

In order not to "betray" the protest movement in her country, the Iranian Sara Khadem presented herself without a veil to a chess tournament. A risky decision that forced her into exile in Spain so as not to be arrested.

The life of the chess grandmaster, 17th player in the world at just 25 years old, changed on December 26 at the World Rapid Games Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

She then presented herself without a hijab so as not to "betray" the protest movement triggered in Iran by the death in detention on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, she told AFP in a locality in southern Spain whose she asks not to give the name for "security reasons".

"The Iranian government could sue us, even in other countries. They have done that before," she said.

Covered around the world, her photo without a veil does not escape the Iranian authorities. A well-informed acquaintance tells her that an arrest warrant has been issued against her and that she will be “detained upon her return to Iran”.

Without even being able to carry a chessboard, she left with her husband, Ardeshir Ahmadi, a 32-year-old Iranian-Canadian director and former TV presenter, and their one-year-old son for Spain.

"I have never worn the veil on a daily basis (...) so it seemed hypocritical to me to do something in front of the cameras in which I did not believe", assumes Sara, who says she refused to apologize as asked. the Iranian authorities.

"The reason was personal, but the timing was obviously linked to what was happening in Iran (...) We all felt inspired and encouraged" by the protest movement and the Iranian personalities who had taken off their veils, adds- she.

In October, climber Elnaz Rekabi wore only a headband during the Asian Climbing Championships in Seoul, which was interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the protests.

"Leaving Iran was never our wish. It's our native land, we have a lot of ties there", continues Sara, her voice almost extinguished, specifying that "being far from (one's) parents is the most difficult decision" that she had to make in her life.

Sara - who prefers not to use her full name, Khademalsharieh ("servant of religion" in Arabic), because it has earned her many taunts since her departure - explains that she entered Spain on a Schengen visa obtained for previous competitions .

She and her husband now benefit from a residence permit granted by Spain to the couple in exchange for the purchase of real estate for at least 500,000 euros.

The chess player, who was received in January by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez with whom she played a game, remains aware of how lucky she is, because "many Iranians do not manage to obtain visas "for Europe.

In total, thousands of people have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the protest movement. The Iranian government has sent a signal of appeasement in recent days by releasing many detainees.

Sara had already suffered the wrath of the Iranian regime in 2020. She was then banned from traveling for six months for having left the Iranian national team in protest against the shooting down, "by mistake" according to Tehran, of a Boeing Ukrainian by the Iranian army.

"It was a huge hole in my career (...) a horrible feeling, I thought my career would end," recalls the young woman, who has been playing chess since the age of eight and has sacrificed for it part of his schooling.

“I had to promise” the authorities “that I will not emigrate,” she confides, letting out a quiet laugh.

Before that, she had already made a name for herself by publicly supporting the young Iranian chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja. A naturalized Frenchman, he left his country after the federation banned him from playing in the world rapid games championship in December 2019 for fear that he would face Israeli players there.

Sara Khadem hopes to be able to return to the competitions soon, in front of the chessboard or as a commentator.

As for the future of her country, she says she is "optimistic". "Maybe it will take more sacrifices to achieve a big change", but "I believe that there will come a day when we can all return" to Iran, she wants to believe.

02/17/2023 13:34:48 -         Madrid (AFP) -         © 2023 AFP