The routine played out each time Iran’s Sara Khadem travelled abroad for chess tournaments – between contemplating openings and sizing up her opponents, the top-ranked chess player kept a constant eye on the cameras that roamed the hall, pulling off her headscarf as soon as they stopped rolling.
But when the invite arrived for a tournament in Kazakhstan in December – Khadem’s first in three years – the 25-year-old knew she no longer wanted to keep up the pretence.
“It felt, let’s say, unfaithful to people if I had gone with the headscarf,” she said. “It just didn’t feel right.”
Soon after, Khadem, Iran’s top female chess player and ranked 17th in the world among female chess players, landed in Almaty. Photos began circulating of her, deep in thought and her hair uncovered, as she took on opponents at the Fide World Rapid and Blitz Championships.
As the hijab is compulsory for women under Iranian law, some saw Khadem’s decision as a sign of support for the protests that have gripped Iran since the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody. The Iranian-Kurdish woman was being held by the country’s morality police after being arrested for allegedly breaching Iran’s strict dress code for women.
For Khadem and her husband, film-maker Ardeshir Ahmadi, the tournament appearance marked a turning point; since the birth of their son last year, the couple had been weighing a move to safer country.
The timeline was pushed forward by Khadem’s tournament appearance, said Ahmadi. “She told me, ‘I would love to go to the tournament but I’m not going to wear the hijab,’” said the 32-year-old. “I said ‘OK, if that’s your decision, I support you and we can go to Spain.’”
The couple and their 11-month-old son landed in the country in early January, their path to residency eased by her status as an elite athlete and a property they owned in the country.
“I heard rumours that we did this to get asylum or something so that we can move to Spain,” said Khadem, who is also known as Sarasadat Khademalsharieh. “I just want to be clear that we didn’t use any political reasons to move out because we didn’t need that.”
Khadem is the fifth female grandmaster to leave Iran in recent years – several of them moving abroad after playing internationally without a headscarf. Khadem’s departure, however, has played out against the backdrop of the protest movement that has swept Iran in recent months.
Authorities in Iran have sought to crack down on the demonstrations, executing at least four people and arresting more than 19,500 people, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. More than 500 protesters are believed to have died. Iranian authorities have not provided official figures on deaths or arrests.
Even as Khadem has worked to untangle her relocation from the protest movement – describing the move to Spain as a “family decision” on social media – the country’s politics have followed the family.
Safety concerns have forced the couple to keep secret their exact location in Spain. Khadem emphasised that she alone made the decision to forsake the headscarf. “If I would have to answer to somebody about this, I think it should be me and not the family.”
The couple has sought to keep a low profile in their new country, said Ahmadi. “What she did is not considered political in most countries,” he added. “But in Iran, everything is political.”
His view is coloured by experience; in 2014, Ahmadi was detained in Iran’s Dastgerd prison for three months, after an arrest believed to be linked to a documentary he made about an underground band.
As the couple seeks to put the past behind them and settle into their new lives in Spain, their focus is now on rebuilding Khadem’s career after a years-long hiatus brought on by the pandemic and the birth of her son. The move to Spain has allowed her to delve deeply into the game she fell in love with when she was eight years old.
She is planning to represent Iran in international tournaments, in a nod to the homeland to which the couple eventually hopes to return. “The decision I made in Almaty was a personal decision,” she said. “So when I go back to Iran – as I’m sure I will – I will answer to those who ask me what I felt.”