A chess referee from Iran has fled to the UK after being warned that she could be arrested for being in breach of Iran’s strict dress codes during an international tournament in China.

Shohreh Bayat, 32, has sought asylum in Britain after a photograph of her at the women’s world chess championships in Shanghai last month was circulated on social media. It appeared to show her without a headscarf, although she has insisted the scarf was in place but loose over her hair.

“Iranian media used a photograph of me from an angle that they couldn’t see my headscarf, and they reported that I had no headscarf,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme.

“The hijab is something that hurts me. I don’t believe in it, and it’s not optional, it’s just forced by the government, we have to wear it. I believe it’s a tool of misogynistic oppression.”

She went on: “Everything that happened to me during this tournament was very painful to me. My family live in Iran, I am married. I couldn’t [go] back and I had no chance to say goodbye to my family, to my husband. I don’t know when I can reach them again.”

She said she would face a lashing if she returned to Iran, and the authorities would want to make an example of her because of her high profile.

She said that many Iranian women wore a loose hijab, although they did not have the option of discarding the headscarf.

Following the incident in Shanghai, Bayat decided to discard her hijab. She went from China to Vladivostok in Russia, and then flew to the UK. Here, she said: “I can be myself … I am free now.”

Bayat said she had “received much kindness and generosity from the chess community” in the UK.

In an article for the Washington Post, she said her father had introduced her to “the beautiful game of chess, beloved by ancient Persian poets” when she was nine. “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?”

When she travelled abroad for chess tournaments, she said: “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.”

The hijab has been a mandatory part of women’s dress in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but some women have challenged the authorities in recent years by wearing loose headscarves.

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