When Shohreh Bayat, one of the world’s top chess referees, let her hijab slip during a match earlier this year she had no idea she may never return home to Iran again.
Not long after the seemingly innocuous pictures of her loose hair had circulated in Iran, where headscarves are strictly mandated by the ruling ayatollahs, she was receiving threats to her life.
But there was another reason she felt she could never go back: her secret Jewish heritage.
“All my life was about showing a fake image of myself to society because they wanted me to be an image of a religious Muslim woman, which I wasn’t,” Ms Bayat said in an exclusive interview with the Telegraph, speaking of her Jewish roots for the first time as she awaits asylum in the UK.
Last week, Ms Bayat who now wears her long, straight dark hair loose, got to celebrate the Jewish New Year for the first time in her life.
“It was amazing. It was a thing I never had a chance to do,” Ms Bayat said from her temporary home outside London, describing her excitement, sitting for the Rosh Hashanah dinner with apple, honey and Challah.
Earlier this week, Ms Bayat received a much-anticipated confirmation from the International Chess Federation that allows her to referee under the British flag.
Yet, the top chess arbiter has no work permit that would let her resume the busy career that she once had: eight months after she arrived in the UK, she lives with the family of a chess player friend, waiting for her asylum application to be processed.
Born in northern Iran to a construction businessman and an accountant, Ms Bayat started playing chess at the age of nine - her father’s influence.
Iran’s national champion at 12, Ms Bayat, who also holds a master’s degree in natural resources engineering, embarked on a successful career as an International Chess Federation referee at the age of 25.
She recently became Asia’s only Grade A arbitrer, traveling around the world for tournaments as one of Iran’s most prominent faces in chess, which is a highly prestigious state-sponsored sport in that country.
Back at home in Iran, the slender woman, who has a penchant for bright lipstick, would put on men’s clothes when she wanted to go to a stadium to watch football with friends - an activity off-limits to women.
Iranian women have staged protests in recent years against the compulsory wearing of the hijab, spreading the images of themselves without head coverings on social media and protesting in the streets.
Neglecting to wear a hijab can land any woman in Iran in prison under the penal code introduced shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iranian authorities have arrested dozens of women who have taken part in the protests. Some of them were forced to make televised confessions, some were held in solitary confinement and subject to torture and beatings.
Never a believer in the hijab, 33-year old Ms Bayat, who calls it an “ugly scarf”, still felt like she had to comply - even if that meant wearing it on the back of her head as an increasing number of women in Iran do these days.
But her lax attitude finally caught up with her at the 2020 Women’s World Chess Championship in January where Ms Bayat was to be the chief arbiter.
“It was the highlight of my career,” she said of the tournament held in Shanghai and Vladivostok.
It took just one picture of her snapped earlier that day - standing by the chess board and smiling at the camera with her scarlet headscarf around her neck but not visible on the top of her head - for Iranian hardliners to declare her a public enemy.
After the match she stopped by her hotel before dinner to check her mobile phone since referees were not allowed to carry them at tournaments.
“My mobile was full of messages saying: ‘Please, don’t come back, they will arrest you’,” Ms Bayat recalled in the interview before she started sobbing, overwhelmed with emotions of what happened eight months earlier.
“I woke up the following day and saw that the (Iranian) Federation removed my picture… It was like I didn’t exist,” she said, dabbing her eyes with paper napkins.
That morning she went to the tournament without a hijab: “I knew I couldn’t tolerate it any longer.”
But there was something else that Iranian officials did not know about her.
Her paternal grandmother Mary, who moved to Iran from Azeraijan’s capital Baku during the Second World War, was Jewish.
“If they knew that I had Jewish background, I would never ever be general secretary of the Iranian chess federation,” she said, recalling anti-Jewish remarks she heard from chess officials.
Faced with threats at home, Ms Bayat kept doing her job at the second leg of the tournament in Russia’s Vladivostok, brushing off calls from Iranian officials for a public apology and never receiving any assurances for a safe return.
At the end of January, the Iranian referee changed her return ticket and went to the UK, which was the only western country she had a valid visa for.
With her battered red suitcase that got one of its wheels broken somewhere between Russia and China, Ms Bayat showed up at immigration in Heathrow and applied for asylum.
However, the Home Office has suspended all asylum interviews during the pandemic, further worsening the existing backlog.
The latest communication with the Home Office indicated that Ms Bayat would get her interview by August but she never did, according to her lawyer, Adrian Seelhoff, who insists that his client’s case is “so clear cut it could be decided without an interview”.
While not commenting on individual cases, a Home Office spokesperson told the Telegraph that they resumed asylum interviews at the end of July and that they “have been working to progress as many cases as possible”.
For Ms Bayat, going back to Iran is out of the question.
Last year, three women were sentenced to a combined 55 years in prison in Iran for defying the hijab law.
She hopes to be reunited with her family and husband one day and is unapologetic about her decision to ditch the hijab and defect: “I have no regrets.”