The fear of the Iranian chess player who fled to Spain for playing without a veil: “The government could persecute us in other countries”

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Sara Khadem had to flee Iran at the possibility of being arrested (Reuters)
Sara Khadem had to flee Iran at the possibility of being arrested (Reuters)

Last December, the Iranian Sara Khadem She appeared unveiled at a chess tournament and her image went viral around the world as a symbol of protest against the Islamic Republic. After that, the woman was forced into exile in spain together with her husband because of the political pressure exerted on her and the terror she felt. Now, she has given a brief interview to the agency AFP in which he told how he lives these days far from his homeland.

The life of the chess grandmaster, the 17th player in the world at the age of 25, turned upside down at the rapid game world championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was then that appeared without the hijab, the Islamic veil, so as not to “betray” the protest movement that broke out in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini on 16 September while in detention.

The Iranian government could persecute us even in other countries. They have already done it in the past with other Iranians”, he explained in the interview when asking that the place where he currently lives not be published.

Reproduced around the world, her unveiled photo did not escape the attention of the Iranian authorities. Someone she knew, with good information, told her that she was the subject of an arrest warrant and that she would be “arrested upon her return to Iran.” Unable to even take a chessboard with her, she went to Spain with her husband, Ardeshir Ahmadi, a 32-year-old Iranian-Canadian film director and former TV presenter, and her one-year-old son.

“I never wore it regularly,” he said about the veil, so it seemed “hypocritical” to do “something in front of the cameras in which one does not believe.” It should be remembered that the authorities demanded that she apologize, but she refused. “The reason was personal, but the time to do it was obviously to do with what was happening in Iran (…) We feel very inspired and encouraged” by the protests and by Iranian personalities who dared to remove their veils, she added.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez played a friendly game of chess against Sara Khadem (Reuters)
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez played a friendly game of chess against Sara Khadem (Reuters)

“Abandoning Iran completely, it was not something we thought about,” he assured, explaining that moving away from his parents “was the most difficult decision” of his life. Sara – who prefers not to use her full last name, Khademalsharieh, servant of religion-, explained that he entered Spain with a visa that he had obtained for chess tournaments.

Now she and her husband have a residence permit granted by the Spanish state for the purchase of a property worth at least 500,000 euros (530,000 dollars). The chess player, who was received in January by the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, with whom she played a game, is aware of her good luck, since “it is not easy for many Iranians to obtain a visa, due to the current situation ”.

Khadem already suffered the wrath of the Iranian regime in 2020, when he was banned from traveling for six months for having withdrawn from the Iranian national team in protest of the downing, “by mistake” according to Tehran, of a Ukrainian Boeing by the Iranian army, a accident in which 176 people died. “It was a huge parenthesis (…), a horrible feeling, I thought it was the end of my career,” recalled the young woman who has been playing chess since she was 8 years old and who sacrificed part of her schooling for the game. “I had to promise” to the authorities “that I would not emigrate,” he confided, outlining a smile.

Before that, he had already made a name for himself by publicly supporting Iranian chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja. A French national, he left his country after the federation banned him from participating in the world championship of rapid games in December 2019 for fear that he would face Israeli players.

Sarah Khadem she hopes to return to competition soon, either sitting at the board or as a commentator. In addition, she is optimistic about the future of her country: “Maybe a big change will require more sacrifices.” And she added: “I think there will come a day when we can all go back.”

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With information from AFP

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