When Iranian chess star Sara Khadem, an International Master, competed without a hijab at an international event last December in Almaty, Kazakhstan—in defiance of her country’s mandatory dress regulations—she knew the risk she was taking. She could be arrested upon returning home—or worse. Khadem acted in solidarity with the protest movements that erupted after Mahsa Jina Amini died after being arrested for allegedly not wearing a hijab properly. “This wasn’t some decision I made quickly,” she says. “I thought about it. I knew it was right. So I have no regrets.”

Sara Khadem in Spain, Jan. 10, 2023. (Ximena y Sergio)
Sara Khadem in Spain, Jan. 10, 2023.
Ximena y Sergio

Fearing repercussions from Iran, Khadem is now living in Spain, where she received citizenship this summer so she can participate in global chess events with the support of the Spanish chess federation. While Khadem has found a safe haven abroad with her husband and son, she’s still separated from her family. She did not get to say goodbye to her grandmother, who died of cancer this summer. “That was very difficult,” she says. She takes comfort, however, knowing that many Iranians support her stance and are inspired by her career, no matter what flag she represents officially. “If I am successful in my field, I will still make the Iranian people happy,” says Khadem, who recently helped her team win the championship of the inaugural Global Chess League. “Because I’m Iranian, after all.”

Read More: Column: Mahsa Amini’s Death Still Haunts the Iranian Regime

When Khadem, who first started playing chess at age 8, won a gold medal at an under-12 world championship, she remembers hoping for a round of applause when she returned to school. Instead, her teacher chastised her in front of the class, saying: “‘Maybe you are wasting your future,’” Khadem recalls. “‘You’re smart. You can use that on other stuff.’”

Khadem didn’t listen. Now she’s ranked 15th among women in the world. And she hopes to return to Iran in the near future. “I don’t think it will be so easy for me to go back,” she says. “But it’s my homeland.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at

How Viral Librarian Mychal Threets Found His Joy
Poet Mosab Abu Toha Is Documenting War in Verse
Simone Manuel's Mission to Get Everybody to Swim
The Young Billionaire Using AI to Secure the Future of Japanese Businesses
RAYE Can’t Escape Her Success