Secret Superhero Sara Khadem’s Defiant Stand Against Iran’s Repression

2022 has been a year of great unrest and protest against the repression of women in Iran, and of great popularity for the game of chess whose roots are intrinsically linked with Persian culture. One figure who has been closely associated with both of these worlds is Sara Khadem, Iran’s top women’s chess player, whose defiant stand in solidarity with those protesting in her homeland has stolen the headlines at the 2022 World Rapid and Chess Championship, and the limelight from better known players competing at the event. This Secret Superhero has laid her career, nationality and even her safety on the line in order to make a stand for other Iranian women. 

OPENING GAMBITS

Sarasadat Khademalsharieh - aka Sara Khadem - was born in 1997 in Tehran, but unlike many top chess prodigies she was not introduced to the game until relatively late. One of her schoolmates taught her to play when she was eight years old, and she subsequently persuaded her parents - neither of whom are chess players - to send her to a chess coach. She ended up being coached by the Iranian International Master Khosro Harandi, who was an active international player throughout the 1970s, but saw his career abruptly ended when the Ayatollah Khomeini outlawed the game following the Iranian Revolution in 1978, citing its historical links to gambling. The Ayatollah was only persuaded to rescind this judgment in 1988, shortly before his death, and Iranian chess was slow to recover.

Secret Superhero Sara Khadem’s Defiant Stand Against Iran’s Repression

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2022 has been a year of great unrest and protest against the repression of women in Iran, and of great popularity for the game of chess whose roots are intrinsically linked with Persian culture. One figure who has been closely associated with both of these worlds is Sara Khadem, Iran’s top women’s chess player, whose defiant stand in solidarity with those protesting in her homeland has stolen the headlines at the 2022 World Rapid and Chess Championship, and the limelight from better known players competing at the event. This Secret Superhero has laid her career, nationality and even her safety on the line in order to make a stand for other Iranian women. 

OPENING GAMBITS

Sarasadat Khademalsharieh - aka Sara Khadem - was born in 1997 in Tehran, but unlike many top chess prodigies she was not introduced to the game until relatively late. One of her schoolmates taught her to play when she was eight years old, and she subsequently persuaded her parents - neither of whom are chess players - to send her to a chess coach. She ended up being coached by the Iranian International Master Khosro Harandi, who was an active international player throughout the 1970s, but saw his career abruptly ended when the Ayatollah Khomeini outlawed the game following the Iranian Revolution in 1978, citing its historical links to gambling. The Ayatollah was only persuaded to rescind this judgment in 1988, shortly before his death, and Iranian chess was slow to recover.

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Despite a relatively slow start, Sara’s early development as a player was phenomenal. In 2009 she won the World Under-12 Girls Championship, and this success led to her breaking the 2000 barrier in the Elo system that dictates the rankings in chess. This was sufficient to qualify her for the first Master title offered by the game’s governing body, FIDE, the WCM (Women’s Candidate Master) title. She also acquired a new coach, the Dutch Grandmaster Robin Van Kempen, and with his backing she continued to climb the ranks of world chess. Over the next few years she won several major junior chess championships, and in 2014 she finished second in the World U-20 Chess Championships in Pune, India, while still just 17 years old. 

CONTROVERSIAL MOVES

Sara was at the vanguard of a renaissance in Iranian chess. Coming up behind her were a group of Iranian prodigies who have all gone on to become top teenage Grandmasters, including Amin Tabatabaei, Parham Maghsoodloo, and most famously of all, Alireza Firouzja, the youngest player ever to achieve a 2800 Elo rating and one who is widely tipped to be a future World Champion. Sara’s first brush with controversy came in 2019, after Firouzja renounced his Iranian citizenship in protest at being told to withdraw from that year’s World Rapid and Blitz Championships. The Iranian Chess Federation had decreed that all Iranian players must withdraw to avoid the possibility of facing Israeli opponents, and Firouzja consequently switched his registration to FIDE’s “International” flag, before ultimately choosing to represent France in future competitions. Sara posted a video to her YouTube channel where she supported Firouzja’s actions, and was openly critical of the authorities: “it’s the best for his future and I think it’s the right decision because he’s not getting any support… they’re making problems for him, so they’re not pushing him forward but sending him backwards. I hope something changes in Iran because I don’t want that to happen to other players, too”.

As the world’s hottest chess prodigy, Firouzja had plenty of suitors when he decided to switch allegiances. For Sara and other players - especially in the underfunded women’s game - the opportunities are fewer, and without the backing of a national federation it is extremely difficult for individuals to compete in international chess. She discovered this to her cost in 2020 when she first announced her retirement from the national chess team. This action was taken in solidarity with Kimia Alizadeh, a Taekwondo athlete who became the only Iranian woman in history to win an Olympic medal when she took bronze in the 57kg category at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Alizadeh announced her retirement with a powerful Instagram post in which she lamented being “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran who [Iran's rulers] have been playing with for years. They took me wherever they wanted. I wore whatever they said. Every sentence they ordered me to say, I repeated. Whenever they saw fit, they exploited me.” Alizadeh would go on to compete under the Refugee flag at the 2020 Olympics, but Khadem returned to competitive chess as part of the Iranian federation six months later.

PROMOTION TO A QUEEN

As time passed social unrest in Iran continued to grow, and the final straw for Sara seems to have come with the protests that have followed the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested in 2022 for “wearing a hijab improperly” and died in custody. This has once again sparked a wave of public protests and defections from Iranian athletes and celebrities,  most notably from the men’s soccer team at the 2022 World Cup, who refused to participate in the singing of the national anthem.  Other examples include the competitive climber Elnaz Rakabi and the champion archer Parmida Ghasemi, both women who competed without hijabs and were subsequently forced to issue statements claiming that this was accidental, and not as a protest. 

Against this background, Sara Kadem has chosen to announce her break with Iran in the most public way possible. At the 2022 World Rapid and Blitz Championships held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, she has opted to play her games without wearing the mandatory hijab. This is the largest open chess tournament of the calendar, where women and men play alongside each other, and her protest has been played out in full view of the world’s media who have gathered to see celebrities such as Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura battling for supremacy. Khadem’s protest has caused far greater headlines than those generated in the men’s bracket, and refocused the world’s attention on the plight of Iran’s women at a time when the Iranian regime had hoped the protests were waning in the wake of a draconian crackdown by authorities. 

Sara is being understandably cagey about what the future holds for her and her family. She’s married to Iranian film director Ardeshir Ahmadi, and has informed the Spanish press that she intends to move to Spain and play under the Spanish flag in future. Whether she will do this as a naturalized citizen or as a refugee is unclear at this stage, and she has refused to specify which part of Spain she intends to move to, for fear of reprisals from the Iranian regime.

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