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A chess grandmaster banned from Iran's team examines protests in her native country

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You've probably heard about the massive protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, also known by her Kurdish name, Jina. She is the young woman who died after she was arrested by the so-called morality police in Tehran, apparently because she was deemed to have violated the country's strict rules governing modest dress. It isn't exactly clear what the alleged violation was. Most reports say her headscarf or hijab slipped down.

The government denies she was mistreated in custody. But in any case, her death has sparked protests throughout the country. And the government has responded with force. Amnesty International estimates that at least 52 people have been killed by government forces, including women and children. But the protests continue and have sparked a much larger conversation not just about the hijab, but the relationship between Iran's government and the country's people. That's a conversation that touches Iranians inside the country and outside of it, including Dorsa Derakhshani. She's a chess grandmaster from Iran who was banned from playing on Iran's national team because she stopped wearing a hijab when playing for the team abroad. We reached her in Saint Louis, Mo., where she's on a break from medical school. And she's with us now to share her thoughts. Dorsa Derakhshani, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DORSA DERAKHSHANI: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I'm sure that you've followed the protests taking place in Iran, just like those of us outside of the country have been doing, so many people have been doing. First, if I could just ask you, what does this bring up for you?

DERAKHSHANI: A lot of PTSD, a lot of survivor guilt, because I grew up in Iran. And I went to high school. I finished high school in Iran. And that was the turning point for me that I knew, yep, I can't live here. I need to get out. And I was lucky enough that I had the opportunity to get out - and so many people didn't.

MARTIN: For people who may not understand how the whole issue around women and their dress in public works, could you just talk about - what is it like to navigate as a woman when it comes to public dress? Like, how is this communicated to you, and how is this enforced? Can you just talk a little bit about that?

DERAKHSHANI: We've always referred to it as hijab police. I think right now, morality police make it sound like more - how do you say? - sophisticated. It's not, it's just the hijab police. And I say that because I was arrested when I was 16, 17. And my mom was with me. And we were both, like, walking around normal in Iran. And I remember because it was right after I had Lasik eye surgery. So I was a little over 17. And I had just walked out. It was nighttime. I had, like, big patches on my eyes. And I couldn't see.

So, like, my scarf fell down for a brief second, and they saw it, and they rushed over to us. You've got to come with us. You've got to come with us. Like, you're not - you know, they started calling me names. And they started, like, calling me how I want to be all kind of - I'm not sure how appropriate it is, but the translation would be like, you want to always be naked. You want to, like, you know, be, like, under people's - like, bro, I'm 17. I can't see.

And they were trying to take me. And my mom intervened. And she was like, just take me, take me. Let my daughter be. So they took my mom. And it was very traumatizing. And when she was in, they wanted to confiscate the phones. But she made sure to call me. And she put her phone in her pocket, so I could hear a little bit of what was going on. But I was just stranded in the streets. So I had to, like, I was, like, going around begging strangers, hey, can you make sure my dad is called? Can you get me to go to wherever they're taking my mom? It was a very traumatic experience.

MARTIN: I can see why you say that it really brought up traumatic memories for you. How was it resolved in your mom's case? Like, what happened?

DERAKHSHANI: So they told her, like, the first time, we just keep you as a record for six months. And if you do it again, if you're arrested again, you have to pay a fine and stay overnight in jail. And the third time, we'll, like, you know, it's going to be more severe. But at that point, when my mom got out, she was like, you're not living here anymore. You're getting out. And that was in, like, December. And I was out by May. I was already going to live a different country. But they will try to drag you in that van. And if you argue, if you resist, they'll beat you.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you, do you - I recognize that you're not a geopolitical expert. I mean, you're a medical student. You're a young person just trying to kind of live. But do you have hope that this moment will bring change?

DERAKHSHANI: Hope? Yes. Is it a reality? I can only hope so because it is a big movement. And I think a huge part of it is that it's something that's not being covered enough by the media. And I also mean, like, the Iranian media, they cannot say anything about it because the media is controlled by the government. And it's a dictatorship. So there's a lot of different things that we hear, and all of it shows that the government is scared, the government is tired of fighting. But at the same time, they're not afraid to kill. So I hope that less people get killed, but I do hope for a change.

MARTIN: Well, thanks so much for talking with us about this. I know it's not easy to talk about. But thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Before we let you go, you know, we can't leave without talking about chess.

DERAKHSHANI: Yes.

MARTIN: When we spoke with you in the spring, you were preparing to take on 30 opponents in an exhibition. So tell me about the exhibition. How did that go? And what's next?

DERAKHSHANI: It was quite wonderful. I had a lot of fun doing it, my feet didn't, because it took about 4 1/2 hours of walking, and I was not prepared for that. I did win every game, except one ended in a draw. There were a few games that I think I should have lost, but I pulled some trick out of my hands and it worked. The big change was there are two sister universities. There is Saint Louis University and then there is the Mizzou. And I came to U.S. playing for Saint Louis University, but then I ended up getting into medical school at Mizzou. So I moved there, and I play for their team now. Their sister universities, our coaches are friends, we're all friends. But we do have to face each other here and there. So I'm not sure how I feel about that just yet, but we'll have to see. We might get lucky and not get paired together too often.

MARTIN: I'm sure you'll handle it with aplomb and with grace and ferocity (laughter).

DERAKHSHANI: Thank you.

MARTIN: OK. That was Dorsa Derakhshani. She is a chess grandmaster who was banned from Iran's national team for declining to wear a hijab during international matches played outside of the country. She's now in medical school at Mizzou. Dorsa Derakhshani, thanks so much for talking with us once again. And you know, good luck in all your future endeavors. And, you know, play hard.

DERAKHSHANI: Thank you for having me and caring about the story of what's going on in Iran. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.