A prominent Iranian chess official said she was afraid of returning to her country after an image of her, appearing not to wear a hijab at a world chess tournament, circulated online and in Iranian media.
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.
But she said discussions in Iranian media seemed more concerned with her hijab than her accomplishments, following a recent chess match during the Women’s World Chess Championship.
After she finished presiding over the third round in Shanghai on Jan. 8, she said she turned on her phone and saw a picture of her during the tournament circulating on Iranian media, which is heavily monitored by the government.
In the photo, it appeared that her head was uncovered, a violation of Iranian law.
“The accusation in these articles was that I deliberately had no head scarf in order to protest against the hijab,” Ms. Bayat said in an email. “I was shocked and panicked.”
Now, Ms. Bayat feels she can’t return to Iran.
“Not wearing the hijab is a crime in Iran which is punishable by arrest, invalidation of the passport or prison,” she said. “I would love to return to Iran but only if I’ll be safe.”
Ms. Bayat told the BBC that she was in fact wearing the hijab in the photo, which, in the image, hung loosely on the back of her head. Generally, she said, she did not even like wearing the hijab.
“I believe people must be free to choose what they want to wear,” Ms. Bayat said in the email. “I have never worn the hijab out of choice.”
She told the BBC that after reading the news accounts in Iran, she decided to stop wearing the hijab so she could “be myself.”
Ms. Bayat said in her email that the Iranian chess federation asked her to issue a statement supporting the hijab, but she refused.
“In my conscience, I could not do it,” she said.
The Iranian chess federation did not respond to a request for comment.
“It is frustrating that some people are more concerned with what I wear than in my achievements,” Ms. Bayat said.
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.
“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.”