Mitra Hejazipour: kicked off Iran chess team for not wearing veil, now champion of France

Expelled from the Iranian chess team in 2019 for not wearing the veil, Mitra Hejazipour has rebuilt her life in France.

In her new home after her fast-tracked naturalization in 2023, she is a chess champion, and has emerged as a symbol of opposition to the Islamic regime in Tehran.

Three years before the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after she was arrested for not wearing the Islamic veil correctly, Mitra had already defied the regime by refusing to wear the religious garment while representing Iran competitively.

While she did not pay as high a price as Mahsa, the chess player, now 30 years old, was forced into exile after deciding in December 2019 not to return to her country from a tournament in Moscow, where she had been excluded from the team for refusing to cover her head and shoulders.

The chess player, who now lives in Paris, then opted to go to Brest in northwest France, where she had a temporary permit to train with a local club.

“I have no regrets. I’m very proud of myself. The only thing I regret is not being able to return to my country, where my family and my loved ones are”, she tells EFE at the facilities of the French Chess Federation, on the outskirts of Paris.

Nationalized in 2023 – the same year she was crowned French chess champion – by government decree, Hejazipour was able to rebuild a career that she had been on the verge of abandoning. Today she is one of the best chess players in France, where she has also completed her studies in computer engineering.

But despite the progress she has made, the process was painful. Her parents, who are Muslim and still live and work in Iran, were not supportive at first. “They were uneasy about my safety and their own safety in Iran,” she says.

However, “little by little” they understood her commitment to women’s freedom.

The feminist activist evokes some of the experiences that led her to the drastic solution of exile.

“In 2018 I was very impressed to see on social media a woman in Iran removing her veil. I had been hesitating for years, I was reflecting on those Islamic rules that we are obliged to comply with and that seemed useless to me,” Mitra says.

The chess player says she is pleased that the issue has been kept in the spotlight after Narges Mohammadi, an activist who is imprisoned in Iran, won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize. Mitra was invited to the ceremony in Oslo along with Mohammadi’s teenage children, who also live in Paris.

“After the 2022 movement (by Mahsa Amini), the Iran problem had stopped being talked about internationally because the media attention was on other issues. The award to Narges gave credit to the pro-women’s movement and brought back international attention,” Mitra says.

The young Iranian, who does not know when she will be able to return to the country where she spent her first 26 years, is convinced that her compatriots want democracy.

But she is also convinced that with the current Islamic regime “it will not be possible: it is really incompatible”.

Her main hope is the contagion effect. Mahsa Amini and Narges Mohammadi, iconic figures turned martyrs, have inspired other young women, who also look to Mitra.

“When you feel the courage to do something, do it. Show others your courage. That’s contagious, others will follow.