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Jailed Belarusian, Iranian Exile, Slain Afghans Among U.S. 'Women Of Courage' Honorees

The U.S. State Department said Iranian chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat will be honored for choosing “to be a champion for women’s rights rather than be cowed by the Iranian government’s threats.”

The U.S. State Department will honor 14 “extraordinary” women from Belarus, Iran, and other countries who have demonstrated leadership, courage, resourcefulness, and a willingness to sacrifice for others.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will host the annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) awards in a virtual ceremony on March 8 -- International Women's Day -- to honor jailed Belarusian opposition figure Maryya Kalesnikava, as well as Shohreh Bayat, an Iranian chess arbiter who went into exile after violating her country’s strict Islamic dress code, the State Department said in a statement on March 4.

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It said a group of seven other “extraordinary” women leaders and activists from Afghanistan who were assassinated while serving their communities will also receive an honorary award.

The IWOC award, now in its 15th year, is presented annually to women from around the world who have “demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment -- often at great personal risk and sacrifice.”

This year’s recipients include Kalesnikava, a ranking member of the Coordination Council, an opposition group set up after Belarus's disputed presidential election in August with the stated aim of facilitating a peaceful transfer of power.

The opposition says the election was rigged and the West has refused to accept the results. Thousands of Belarusians have been jailed during months of crackdowns on the street demonstrations against strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Kalesnikava was arrested in September and charged with calling for actions aimed at damaging the country's national security, conspiracy to seize state power, and organizing extremism.

Ahead of the presidential election, “Belarusian women emerged as a dominant political force and driver of societal change in Belarus due in no small part to” Kalesnikava, according to the State Department.

The opposition figure “continues to be the face of the opposition inside Belarus, courageously facing imprisonment, it said, adding that she “serves as a source of inspiration for all those seeking to win freedom for themselves and their countries.”

The State Department said Bayat will be honored for choosing “to be a champion for women’s rights rather than be cowed by the Iranian government’s threats.”

Bayat, the first female Category A international chess arbiter in Asia, sought refuge in Britain after she was photographed at the 2020 Women’s Chess World Championship in Shanghai without her head scarf, or hijab, as her country mandates.

“Within 24 hours, the Iranian Chess Federation -- which Shohreh had previously led -- refused to guarantee Shohreh’s safety if she returned to Iran without first apologizing,” the State Department said.

“Fearing for her safety and unwilling to apologize for the incident, Shohreh made the heart-wrenching decision to seek refuge in the U.K., leaving her husband -- who lacked a U.K. visa -- in Iran.”

In addition to the individual IWOC awards, Blinken will also present an honorary award to seven Afghan women whose “tragic murders" in 2020 underscored the “alarming trend of increased targeting of women in Afghanistan.”

The women include Fatema Natasha Khalil, an official with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission; General Sharmila Frough, the head of the Gender Unit in the National Directorate of Security; journalist Malalai Maiwand; women’s rights and democracy activist Freshta Kohistani; and midwife Maryam Noorzad.

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