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Sara Khadem: “I was worried that if I played the chess tournament in a headscarf it would look like I was wearing something that went against people.”

Iranian Sara Khadem is a world chess eminence but, since the end of last year, also a symbol of the struggle for equal rights in her country. After playing the World Championship in Kazakhstan without a veil, the sportswoman was forced to emigrate to Spain. Now, settled in her new home with her family, she continues to demand change.

For a child prodigy, Sara Khadem (Tehran, 1997) fulfills very few of the clichés associated with the title: neither has she needed therapy, nor has she lost her motivation, nor has her ego turned her into a tyrant. In fact, at a glance, Khadem would pass for any girl her age, dabbling with studies and trying to figure out what to do with her life. But, of course, there is little normal about Sara.

When, at the age of eight, the other girls were watching cartoons, she was already spending ten hours a day playing chess. When, at twelve, her classmates were not yet interacting with the boys (classes in Iran are segregated by sexes), Sara had already traveled around the world with the national federation and was crowned U-12 world champion. And when they were preparing for their exams at 16, she won the title of U-16 world champion in blitz.

"I used to dedicate many more hours to chess than I do now," she laughs, "Thanks to the pandemic I was able to take a break, and then my son Sam was born, so I'm taking it easier now. However, it has not been her competitive achievements that have made her face go around the world in recent months. It was a gesture that has nothing to do with pawns that has made her a symbol of Iranian resistance and changed her life forever: Sara decided to play the World Rapid Chess Championship in Kazakhstan without the hijab, which is mandatory in her country for women from the age of nine. She did so as a show of solidarity after what had happened days earlier; Iran's so-called moral police had murdered Mahsa Amini for not wearing the headscarf correctly. "I heard about it like everyone else, on television. I was at home because Sam had just been born, we had the news on and we were shocked. We and the whole country," she recalls today.

It was then that protests began all over Iran, with women rebelling against the Islamic government's imposition of the veil. Then it was the turn of climber Elnaz Rekabi, who competed in the Seoul World Cup without a hijab as a sign of support, and then Khadem. "I was worried that if I played the tournament in a headscarf it would look like I was wearing something that was against the people and that I was supporting what the government was doing. But my decision affected my husband's life as well, so we talked about it beforehand; I told him that either I would play without a headscarf or I wouldn't play the tournament. He supported me all the way," she concedes.

"In my country, people are risking their lives with the protests."

The athlete has been married since 2018 to Iranian producer and director Ardeshir Ahmadi, another well-known name in the country who also had problems with the regime some time ago, when he spent three months in what is supposed to be Iran's worst prison for reasons that were never clarified. Now, both live with their one-year-old son in a secret location in our country, where they were already planning to move before the tournament that would shake their lives, but after what happened, it became an emergency escape route. "We had been considering for some time having a second home to spend half the year. Last summer we already started to treat it as a near reality and although at first we thought of Canada because Ardeshir has a Canadian passport, we thought it was too far away," recalls Sara.

"We had been here before and we love the Spanish people, they are some of the nicest people in the world. Also, in Gibraltar there is an annual tournament, so we used to come here often and had done a few road trips. The difference is that with everything that happened, we had to move overnight. We didn't even have time to say goodbye." 

Now settled, Khadem says she feels safe in Spain, but also guilty that she had to leave everything behind. "In my country, people are risking their lives with the protests," she defends. "We have followed the uprisings closely, witnessed how brave all the people are being, and we are ashamed of ourselves because we have lived through it sitting at home watching the news and doing nothing."

  • But you yourself have had to leave your country precisely because you are mobilizing?
  • But they are very young and are risking their lives. I am here calmly. They are totally different things.

This activist spirit of the chess player is not new. Already in 2020 she refused to play for the national team after her country's government shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner with an anti-aircraft missile, and in 2019 she shared a video in support of her compatriot Alireza Firouzja after he was forced to emigrate to France, tired of being forced to lose to Israeli opponents. However, none of his protests had escalated as quickly as his refusal to wear the headscarf did. "I thought it would be like all the other times, that I would have to keep a low profile for a while and then they would forget. Rekabi was made to record a video in which he said it had been an accident, that the veil had fallen off while climbing… but of course, in my case I had played many, many rounds, it didn't make any sense for me to 'drop it' over and over again," she laughs wryly. "I was then asked to record a video in which I had to say that the decision had been the result of Western pressures and I refused. Then I met with Pedro Sanchez and everything became too political. I was told that if I went back to Iran I would have serious problems."

"Sometimes I went out with my friends without a headscarf, but if we took a selfie we had to put it on."

And all, despite the fact that she claims that long before all the commotion she hardly wore the hijab in her day-to-day life. "The problem is hypocrisy," she asserts.

"I don't know if you know what the situation is in Iran, but basically the only thing that matters is that you look like you're following the rules in public, so when we played in tournaments abroad we didn't wear the veil, for example, outside the plane or at the airport. Only when there were cameras filming or taking pictures did we wear it. Even inside the country, maybe not in the center of Tehran, but in the northern areas, nobody wears hijab on the street. It's ridiculous, sometimes I went out with my friends without a headscarf, but if we took a selfie we had to put it on." 

The forcefulness with which Khadem speaks can only be explained in two ways. On the one hand, from the perspective of someone who has had to leave everything behind overnight in her country, but now says she feels completely free here; and, on the other, from the position of a young woman who has grown up with a family freedom that not all women enjoy in Iran. "My family has always let me do what I wanted. In fact, it was my mother who encouraged me to start playing chess. I never grew up in a controlling or strict family. I have some religious background, but my parents are not too religious. They have never told me what to do or where to go."

"Clothes define us, especially something as significant as a veil. But really, here the problem is that we are forced to wear it."

Hence she felt the imposition of the veil as a particularly aggressive rule. For that reason and because, she says, it is just the visible tip of an iceberg that spreads its hill across the country's female society.

"Clothing defines us, especially something as significant as a veil. But in reality, here the problem is simply that we are forced to wear it. Iran is a Muslim country, but I think there are a lot of people who, because they have been forced into many things, have stopped believing in them. For me it was the same thing, because I never came from a restrictive family. I mean, I come from a religious background, but I've always had the freedom to choose. Also, the hijab has become the symbol of the movement, but it's not only that. There are a lot of rules that are against women and when you hear them you can only think about how something like that can happen in the modern world."

Luckily for her, her ability to understand that outside world came to her earlier than average. Incessant travel to tournaments since before she was ten years old steeped her in a privileged culture and perspective. "Nowadays I think everyone has a more developed critical capacity thanks to social media, but yes, I was eight years old when I started traveling thanks to chess. I have visited almost 35 countries, so I got an idea very early on of what was going on in each place and it helped me build an image of the rest of the world, but as I said, also my family has helped me a lot," he insists. "My father spent ten years living in Germany and my mother is also very open-minded. Also, the age difference with her is not too much either, so I feel very connected," she continues.

"As women, we all have responsibilities, but in Iran that commitment goes a step further and when something like this happens, you just feel the need to raise your voice."

Though her expression changes to make it clear that despite the constant support, the decision not to wear the veil was hers alone. "It was personal. It was something I had always felt I had to take off at some point," she sentences.

"In Iran, athletes don't have the support of the government. What they do have is the support of their people. In other countries, for example, when you win a title, the repercussion is not so great, but there the whole country will know about it and will support you. That's why when something like what we experienced happens at a given moment, we all feel a special responsibility for it. Also, as women, we all have responsibilities, but in Iran that commitment goes a step further and when something like this happens, you just feel the need to raise your voice."

By now, the reality is that Khadem has managed to become a reference far beyond Iran's borders. And not only for her bravery, but also as an example of female power within the -still predominantly male- world of chess. "It's true that there are more men, but I think more and more women are joining the sport," she defends.

"Personally, I've never felt any difference. In fact, the world federation is trying to promote it among the female audience. We have many competitions that are open to women who want to participate and, in addition, there are also specific tournaments for female players. So today, if you want to, you can do it without major obstacles."

This scenario in which women gain weight has also been influenced by pop culture. The well-known series Lady's Gambit has worked as more than entertainment for many girls who are now encouraged to try their luck with the boards. "The series is the first thing I'm asked about whenever I talk about chess," she confirms with one of her usual lazy laughs.

"We've never been taken so seriously before and I think it's great that something like this sparks people's interest."

In her case, that passion for the game is in the air every time her eyes light up talking about it and the new challenges that are still pending. In fact, as she herself recalls, the illusion only dissipated briefly years ago: when she achieved the goals she had set for herself and was crowned the undisputed favorite in her country. "That's when I lost my motivation a bit. I felt like I had run out of rivals. I even went to a sports psychologist, but the truth is that I've never been to therapy. I feel that the pressure or lack of motivation has never been so strong," she says again with a smile that takes the heat off the matter. "What I can assure you is that I'm not an easy person to have around before a tournament," she jokes. Although to tell the truth, it's hard to believe her, seeing her shy smile tilted to one side and her close and pizpiretal tone. The same one that hides that competitive character and poise that has led her to turn her life upside down to defend what she believes in. Now, the goal is to get ready again to join the big professional tournaments this April. "That's where the elite of the best women's players participate and if I want to get back to the professional level, I have to be ready." And going back to Iran, is that an option? "You know, when I was there I could see myself growing old somewhere else, but now I would love to go back," she says. "It will only be possible if things get better."

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