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'I Loosened My Hijab at a Chess Championship. Now I’m Afraid to Return to Iran.'



Photo of an Iranian woman
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Religious indoctrination starts early in Iran, when you are forced at school to learn the Koran. I was a dutiful student, praying assiduously while wearing a loose, ugly school uniform, with my hair hidden under a big scarf. At age 8, I even won a prize for fasting.
At 9, I was introduced by my father to the beautiful game of chess, beloved by ancient Persian poets. Chess requires logic and critical thinking — not faith. Slowly, in my teens, I began to question why, if God is fair, is there so much pain and suffering in the world?
Even if my faith was fading, as a woman in Iran I had no choice but to tolerate the hijab — the Islamic emblem of constant, misogynistic oppression. I avoided looking at myself in mirrors. Wearing the head-covering was torment enough. When traveling abroad for chess tournaments, I admired the young women from other countries who wore nice clothes, their hair beautifully styled. I gradually began to spend more time in front of the mirror, trying to find ways, within the confines of my fabric prison, to appear normal.
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Shohreh Bayat is an arbiter for the International Chess Federation.

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