Shohreh Bayat, a chess referee who left Iran three years ago, is concerned about facing more isolation as a result of her recent dispute with the game’s governing body and its president, a former deputy prime minister of Russia. This disagreement arose when she challenged their decision regarding her clothing at a tournament in October.
In 2020, Bayat faced backlash in Iran for not following the proper dress code during the Women’s World Chess Championship held in China and Russia. She stood firm against the government’s demands, but as a consequence, she has not gone back to her country due to fear of repercussions.
After three years, Bayat has stirred up the International Chess Federation (FIDE) and its president by wearing clothing in solidarity with the Iranian protests and the citizens of Ukraine.
In October, 35-year-old Bayat, who currently resides in London with her spouse, served as the official for the 2022 Fischer Random World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Bayat had the chance to referee some of the most prominent athletes in the sport during the tournament. However, this opportunity was marred by the difficult situation in her home country of Iran, where protests were occurring following the death of Mahsa Amini.
A 22-year-old woman from Kurdistan and Iran passed away in September while in custody of the morality police. The reason for her detainment was reportedly due to not following the country’s strict dress code, causing widespread anger towards the government for various issues.
Bayat shared with CNN that it resonated with her personal experience, leading her to take a stand for women’s rights in Iran. During the tournament, she sported a t-shirt with the slogan “WomanLifeFreedom,” in solidarity with the Iranian people.
After the initial day of wearing the t-shirt, Bayat reported that a FIDE official approached her unofficially and requested that she refrain from wearing it.
According to FIDE, the organization responsible for governing international chess competitions, it is mandatory for arbiters at prestigious events to dress appropriately and maintain a professional demeanor. They stated that Bayat, who was serving as an arbiter at a recent event, failed to comply with their direct instructions to refrain from wearing any slogans or mottos on her clothing.
Bayat states that the FIDE arbiter handbook does not contain any regulations about this matter, and she further adds that there was no specified dress code for the event in Iceland.
The handbook for arbiters states that officials are required to adhere to the dress code and present themselves in an appropriate manner, in order to uphold the reputation of chess as a sport. CNN has contacted FIDE for clarification on the expected dress code for the October event.
Feeling annoyed by the demand to cease wearing the slogan, Bayat stated that she concluded she was not violating any regulations and thus wore it once more the following day.
Bayat explains that she was once again requested by an authority figure to remove the item. However, this time she was informed that the request came from Arkady Dvorkovich, the FIDE President and former deputy prime minister of Russia who was present at the tournament in Iceland.
According to Bayat, Dvorkovich did not personally discuss the t-shirt with her, even though they were in the same room when she wore it.
Dvorkovich contacted her through WhatsApp, and CNN was able to see that he asked Bayat to refrain from using official FIDE events for political motives.
Bayat was upset by Dvorkovich’s request and initially replied quickly, but later deleted her response due to its emotional nature.
Bayat then let Dvorkovich know that she would not be wearing the t-shirt the following day, but she still wanted to do what was morally correct.
According to FIDE’s charter, which pledges to uphold all universally recognized human rights and work towards safeguarding these rights, Bayat asserted that she did not break any regulations.
Bayat said, “After considering it carefully, I came to the realization that it was not I who was making chess political, but rather Arkady.”
“I was abiding by FIDE regulations, but Arkady was violating them by preventing me from advocating for women’s rights in Iran.”
FIDE denied any suggestion that politics influenced Dvorkovich’s request to Bayat.
FIDE explained to CNN that they were not evaluating her opinions or actions, but rather the forum and timing in which she expressed them.
The next day, Bayat, who hasn’t seen her parents since leaving Iran three years ago, stated that she purchased a blue and yellow outfit. She wore it to show her support for the Ukrainian people who are fighting against the Russian invasion. She also wore it as a tribute to the 176 individuals who lost their lives in the unintentional shooting down of a Ukrainian plane near Tehran in 2020.
She claims that she was not informed about the blue and yellow outfit, but after leaving the tournament in Iceland, Bayat revealed to CNN that she has not received any invitations to future FIDE events. This is surprising, as she was recognized by the organization as the top female arbiter in Europe for 2022.
Bayat stated that she was initially taken off the arbiter commission, which is a list of all certified arbiters. In a message viewed by CNN, a high-ranking FIDE member informed her that this was due to her clothing choices in Iceland.
Bayat’s name is currently on the database and FIDE stated to CNN that she is still eligible to be a referee for upcoming events. However, due to having a surplus of International Arbiters and limited world events, there is a need for a rotation system to be put in place.
Connection between FIDE President and the Kremlin
Dvorkovich, who is 50 years old, became FIDE President in 2018 and was chosen for a second term in August. Before that, he held the role of Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister from 2012-2018 and also worked as the Kremlin’s main economic advisor.
The Kremlin expressed approval of Dvorkovich’s reelection as FIDE president in the previous year. However, he has consistently stated that his relationship with the Kremlin would not influence his duties for FIDE. He also pointed out that he is one of the highest-ranked officials in Russia to openly criticize the conflict in Ukraine.
According to CNN, Bayat expressed her belief that Dvorkovich is not open to criticism of Iran because of Russia’s close relationship with the country. Iran has been providing military support to Russia in their conflict with Ukraine.
She cites the way FIDE dealt with the Iranian Chess Federation as additional proof of this.
In 2020, Dvorkovich sent a letter urging Iran to adhere to FIDE’s rules, as it was reported that they instructed their players not to compete against Israelis.
The current leader of Iran’s Chess Federation replied, stating that Iran has consistently followed FIDE’s regulations and laws, and that the players themselves make the decision to compete in certain events.
Even after receiving a warning, Iranian players continue to give up games and FIDE has not taken any definitive steps.
Bayat expressed his amusement at the fact that FIDE considers his t-shirt promoting human rights as political, yet remains silent and ignores the actions of the Iran Chess Federation which prohibits players from competing against Israel.
When CNN inquired if Dvorkovich was able to work independently from the influence of Russian authorities regarding Bayat’s involvement in the Iranian protests, FIDE responded by expressing complete trust and confidence in him.
FIDE stated to CNN that although they respect Ms. Bayat’s political views and actions, all FIDE officials must maintain political neutrality while performing their duties. Of all the official roles within FIDE, being an arbiter requires the highest levels of integrity, impartiality, and confidentiality.
“Even if the cause is noble and non-controversial, it is inappropriate and unprofessional to engage in activism while in a position of authority. She was specifically advised not to display any slogans while acting as an arbiter and provided an explanation for this request.”
Bayat’s involvement in activism has caught the interest of prominent figures in the sport, following a tweet by the Iranian chess official about the incident on Sunday.
American chess champion Hikaru Nakamura recently posted on Twitter, showing support for Ukraine with the hashtags “#WomenLifeFreedom” and “#IStandWithUkraine,” in reaction to a tweet from Bayat.
Meanwhile, Peter Heine Nielsen, coach of chess legend Magnus Carlsen, tweeted: “The chess community must decide on which side we truly support.”
Bayat, who currently teaches chess in primary schools, expressed her gratitude for the overwhelming support she has received. This support was especially heartwarming to her when she first sought asylum in England in 2020.
She expressed that her initial intention was to show support for Iranian women. She believes it is crucial and heartwarming to see others also supporting her actions.