A prominent Iranian chess official said she was afraid of returning to her country after images of her presiding over the Women’s World Chess Championship seeming not to wear a hijab reportedly circulated online.
At 32, Shohreh Bayat is one of the few top female chess arbiters in the world with the Category A classification, a distinction given to international chess referees who have shown an excellent command of the rules of the sport.
“I turned on my mobile and saw that my picture was everywhere,” Ms. Bayat told the BBC, seeming to refer to Iranian media. “They were claiming I was not wearing a head scarf and that I wanted to protest against the hijab.”
Images of her were captured during the tournament in Shanghai earlier this month, seemingly with her head uncovered, a violation of Iranian law.
Ms. Bayat told the BBC that she was wearing the hijab, which, in images, hung loosely on the back of her head. Generally, she said, she did not even like wearing the hijab.
“It’s against my beliefs. People should have the right to choose the way they want to dress, it should not be forced,” Ms. Bayat told the news organization. “I was tolerating it because I live in Iran. I had no other choice.”
When she saw reaction online, she said she “totally panicked.”
Ms. Bayat feels she can’t return to Iran, according to the BBC.
“There are many people in prison in Iran because of the head scarf. It’s a very serious issue,” she said. “Maybe they’d want to make an example of me.”
She decided to stop wearing the hijab, the news organization reported, saying that taking it off meant she could “be myself.”
“If I had a choice to go back to Iran, of course I would love to,” she said. “But I don’t know what would happen to me.”
Ms. Bayat told the BBC that the Iranian chess federation asked her to issue a statement addressing the controversy, but that she refused. The Iranian chess federation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
In a brief email, Ms. Bayat confirmed the details in the BBC story. The three-week tournament between Ju Wenjun, the defending champion from China, and Aleksandra Goryachkina, a Russian champion, is now in Vladivostok and ends on Jan. 25.
Misha Friedman, press secretary for the International Chess Federation, said the organization had not heard from the Iranian government or any ministry official asking that Ms. Bayat be removed from the tournament.
The federation “doesn’t have a dress code,” Mr. Friedman said.
“We consider it that she is within the bounds of” federation rules, he said, “and we’re happy with the job that she is doing, so there is no problem from our perspective.”
Being picked as chief arbiter of such a prestigious tournament is a tremendous honor, said Mr. Friedman, who compared it to refereeing the Super Bowl.
Nigel Short, a federation vice president, shared his support on Twitter for Ms. Bayat on Jan. 9, along with an image of her without the hijab.
He called her “a great ambassador for her country.”
The episode coincided with a statement by Kimia Alizadeh, a top Iranian athlete, who recently announced on Instagram that she was defecting from the country because leaders there had used her as a “tool.”
“They took me wherever they wanted,” she wrote. “Whatever they said, I wore. Every sentence they ordered, I repeated.”
Ms. Alizadeh, 21, who won the bronze medal in taekwondo at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, is the only female athlete to win an Olympic medal for Iran.
“My troubled spirit does not fit into your dirty economic channels and tight political lobbies,” she wrote. “I have no other wish except for taekwondo, security and a happy and healthy life.”