On March 8, Secretary of State Antony Blinken honored a group of extraordinary women with the 2021 Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award. This award honors women who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in acting to improve the lives of others. It is an extraordinary opportunity to bring international attention and support to women who have put their lives and/or personal safety at risk in order to improve their societies and inspire fellow citizens. Next, the IWOC honorees will participate in International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) virtual exchanges to connect with American communities, universities, businesses, non-profit organizations, and others.

When 32-year-old Shohreh Bayat boarded her flight from Tehran in January 2020 on her way to the 2020 Women’s Chess World Championship in Shanghai, she had no idea she would be seeing her native Iran for potentially the last time. Bayat, the first female Category A international chess arbiter in Asia and a rising star in the world of elite chess competitions, was photographed at the Shanghai competition without her hijab, the headscarf which is mandatory in Iran. An outcry in Iran followed. Within 24 hours, the Iranian Chess Federation – which Sabat had previously led – removed her profile from their website, refusing to guarantee Bayat’s safety if she returned to Iran without first apologizing. Without having sought out the spotlight, Bayat became an international symbol of the plight of Iranian women who do not get to choose how they dress in public. Bayat, fearing for her safety and unwilling to apologize for the incident, made the heart-wrenching decision to seek refuge in the UK, leaving her husband – who lacked a UK visa – in Iran. In that moment, Bayat chose to be a champion for women’s rights rather than be cowed by the Iranian regime’s threats. The easy path would have been for her to simply issue a formulaic apology and move on, as Iranian authorities had demanded. Instead, she left her life behind to move to London, becoming, almost overnight, an outspoken defender of women’s rights. Iranian authorities have threatened Bayat’s husband and other family members with the aim of stopping her from making media appearances.

Shohreh Bayat: Iranian chess referee fears punishment after condemnation for not wearing the appropriate headscarf – CNN

Her Kansas City program included off-the record, small-group discussion of chess, sports, social activism, and human rights, and connections with the KC Sports Commission and Win for KC, United WE, ACLU of Kansas and Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division. While the shift to a virtual program means she did not get to have a casual ice cream at the Kansas City Plaza or tour museums in person on a weekend, we look forward to the day that Ms. Bayat is able to visit in-person. Conversations are underway, for what a chess-competition in the heartland would look like in 2022.

From Courtney Brooks, Global Ties KC Executive Director, “The International Women of Courage program is one of the most special initiatives that I’ve been a part of over the years. Not just because the women who are nominated for this program are phenomenal (they are) but because it allows us as programmers to slow down and design a project around the interests of one person. Ms. Bayat’s story was inspirational. Beyond all of the media attention she has received over the past year, she is humble. Her love for chess is contagious and for a short couple of weeks through this program, we were able to connect from across continents.”