By Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Dorsa Derakhshani is the 19-year-old Iranian chess champion who was banned from competing in the name of her home country after she refused to wear a head scarf. She now calls St. Louis home where she is a freshman at SLU. Erin Herffernan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shares her story.
Dorsa Derakhshani has played many roles: child prodigy, television performer, one of the top young female chess players in the world and, most recently, a St. Louis University freshman.
But Derakhshani never asked for her most famous one: international newsmaker.
The 19-year-old Iranian chess champion was banned from competing in the name of her home country in February after she refused to wear a head scarf at an international competition. Iranian law requires women to wear head scarves in public.
Her story spread, quickly becoming a conduit in media outlets all over the world for the debate over Iran’s laws controlling what women wear.
But sitting on campus at SLU, where she started as a student this fall, Derakhshani said she doesn’t focus on the ban. Instead she pulls all-nighters to fit in her schoolwork and chess team practice.
“It shouldn’t have become such a big deal,” she said in an interview Wednesday, her head uncovered and long braids hanging down her back. “What I think is right to do, I do it. I try to keep my conscience clear and my mind at peace. I don’t know why some people have enough free time to worry about what I wear.”
A child prodigy
Derakhshani was born in Tehran in 1998 and learned to read by the time she was 2.
As a toddler, she could also sing and dance with skill beyond her years and soon got noticed by an Iranian TV producer, she said.
She began appearing regularly on TV specials: singing, dancing and showing off her reading skills.
“They would change the books so I couldn’t have memorized them,” Derakhshani said. “But I could still read them.”
Her family has videos of her appearances, dressed up in a little red dress with her dark hair uncovered.
But when Derakhshani was 6, her television career was cut short.
A producer made her wear a head scarf on live TV. She was so upset that she ran off the shoot and never appeared on television again.
Derakhshani’s parents worked to fill up their precocious child’s time, enrolling her in classes for swimming, ballet and gymnastics.
She was taking painting lessons when her mother noticed a chess class nearby and signed up both Derakhshani and her younger brother, Borna.
She quickly showed promise. She wore a princess dress and tiara to her first competition and won third place, despite facing several older and more experienced players.
“We didn’t expect it at all,” Derakhshani said. “So we thought, OK this could be something.”
Derakhshani began traveling to international competitions and went on to win gold medals at the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Asian Junior Championships, one of the largest chess competitions for her age group on the continent.
By the time Derakhshani graduated high school in 2016, she felt like she needed to leave her home country behind.
“I thought I can actually do something with chess, I can do it as more than just a sideline,” she said. “I had already won three Asian championships, so at some point I just realized: I’m not going to be enrolled in the system in Iran.
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I don’t want to go to university there. I don’t want to live there.”
At age 18, Derakhshani moved to Barcelona, Spain, where she was recruited by a chess club and lived alone without her family, though her mother visited often.
She continued to compete under the oversight of the Iranian Chess Federation, an affiliation which allowed her to enter several championship cycle tournaments. But she declined to be on the national team sponsored by the government because she didn’t want to be controlled by the rules of the team, including wearing a head scarf even when she was out of Iran.
So Derakhshani dedicated herself to her club and was flown to competitions around the world. She became only the second female in Iran chess history to achieve the title of international master and was among the top young female competitors in the world.
Derakshani wore a simple headband at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival, a weeklong tournament in early 2016.
She didn’t think it would be a problem. “I wasn’t breaking any rules,” she said. “I wasn’t even in Iran. I wasn’t on the national team. ”
But days after the tournament ended, Derakhshani noticed her Instagram account was flooded with messages and follow requests.
“I thought something must have happened,” she said.
That day, without warning to Derakhshani, Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh, head of the Iranian Chess Federation, announced that she and her 14-year-old brother would no longer be permitted to play in the country or under Iran’s name.
“Our national interests have priority over everything,” he told the semiofficial Fars News Agency.
He cited Derakhshani’s refusal to wear a head scarf and said that her brother had played against an Israeli player.
Iran does not recognize Israel and has a policy of not competing against athletes from the country.
Derakhshani said her brother was paired by a computer and did not know the player’s nationality before the match.
“It was just cruel,” she said. “He was just a kid. He didn’t know what to do.”
She also believes the ban against her family was strategic.
The announcement came several days after the tournament in Gibraltar ended, but was in the middle of the Women’s World Chess Championship, which was being held in Tehran.
Though the popularity of chess is surging in Iran, several top female players, including U.S. women’s champion Nazi Paikidze, were boycotting the event because they opposed the requirement that all players wear a head scarf.
In addition, all three Iranian women competing were eliminated in the first round of play, one day before it was announced that Derakhshani was banned.
“The people at the Iranian Federation are chess players, they’re pretty good at analyzing,” Derakhshani said. “So they wouldn’t make such a move if they didn’t have a plan behind it. In my opinion it was a huge mess and they needed a distraction.”
The story dominated news coverage in Iran, prompting a flood of messages to Derakhshani on social media.
“I just gave my mom access to my account,” Derakhshani said. “I didn’t want to deal with it.”