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“Freedom is the ability to be ourselves” IM Sara Khadem on El Pais

Iranian IM Sarasadat Khademalsharieh or Sara Khadem as she prefers to be called now, was interviewed in a secret location for security reasons by Leontxo Garcia for the Spanish newspaper “El Pais”.

Sara made the decision to compete at the 2022 World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Almaty, Kazakhstan, without her hijab, protesting for the state murder of Zhina Mahsa Amini. Her story made the international headlines, right after she announced that she is moving to Spain with her family, but will continue to play under the Iranian flag.

Photo by XIMENA Y SERGIO for El Pais

On her decision to not wear a hijab

“To be honest, even before playing this tournament, I never wore a hijab. I mean, I only put it on for the cameras because I was representing Iran. Somehow, it didn’t feel good to not be myself, so I just decided not to do that anymore.”

On moving to Spain

“When Sam [Sara’s 10 month old son] was born, everything changed. I started thinking about living in a place where Sam could go outside and play without us worrying, and a lot of things like that. Spain seemed to be best choice, and seeing him happy here makes us happy. The Spanish people are like Iranians in a way – they are very warm, and everyone is very nice to us.”

On the consequences of her actions

“I hope my family will not suffer any reprisals, because it was a personal decision [to play without a hijab],” said Khadem, expressing concern that she may also be targeted by hostile members of the Iranian community in Spain.

On playing against Israeli players

“If you play an opponent from Israel, you will get in trouble. If you don’t play, you will get in trouble. I mean, if I answer that question, I think I will get in trouble, so I prefer not to.”

On supporting Firouzja

“I supported him when he decided to emigrate, and I think his success in the chess world [fourth in the world at age 19] really demonstrates that it was a good decision for him... To say I was punished for that might be bit strong, but obviously they didn’t like that I supported him.”

On quitting the national team right before the Gibraltar festival

“The entire nation was heartbroken [after Iran shot down a Ukrainian airplane on January 8, 2020, and all 176 people on board were killed], including me. I decided to quit the national team and stopped playing chess for a while.” Sara explained

On her future dreams

“I will play under the Iranian flag. My immediate goal is to break into the world top 10 [she is currently 17th]. I also want to become a streamer and play chess games live over the internet. I’ve had this idea for years, but I didn’t want to do it from Iran wearing a hijab.”

On Kasparov

“I admire him a lot – he’s very brave. I don’t think I have the knowledge needed to make significant changes, but I do as much as I can to make the world a better place.”

On chess as education

“Chess is very useful for educating children. I plan to include it in Sam’s education, whether he wants to be a player or not. Also, chess has been labeled a men’s game, so that needs to change for girls to consider it normal. It’s very important to include it as an educational tool as early as pre-school, and to train teachers. This will avoid some of the frustrations I experienced when I was 12, and will eliminate the stereotypes. I believe that the recent global success of The Queen’s Gambit [Netflix television series] will help a lot.”

Closing, Sara said: “For me, freedom is the ability to be ourselves. It doesn’t mean that everyone can do whatever they want, but having that right without harming others is an essential necessity of life.”

Read the whole portrait of Sara by the well-known Spanish journalist Leontxo Garcia here.

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