This month, FIDE, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or World Chess Federation, is hosting the Women’s World Chess Competition in Iran. But when the Iranian government mandated that women from all over the world who compete have to wear hijab, the Muslim head veil, the reigning U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, Nazi Paikidze, made headlines by refusing to attend.
The stakes are high for grand master Paikidze. By boycotting the world championship, she forfeits the opportunity to win over $100,000. in award money. By playing in the tournament without abiding by the Islamic dress code, Paikidze would be breaking Sharia, or Islamic law. The penalty for violating the dress code ranges from public lashings to imprisonment.
Her boycott ignited a fierce debate in traditional and social media, most notably in Iran, where women have been fighting for freedom for decades. Paikidze felt the need to clarify her position in this message to the people of Iran:
“I am not anti-Islam or any other religion. I stand for freedom of religion and choice. I’m protesting FIDE’s decision not because of Iran’s religion or people, but because of the government’s laws that are restricting my rights as a woman…
…It’s unacceptable to host a WOMEN’S World Championship in a place where women do not have basic rights and are treated as second-class citizens. I have received the most support and gratitude from the people of Iran, who are facing this situation every day.”
As a result of her public stance, the 22 year-old has become the unwitting center of a political maelstrom. Her supporters include: Gary Walters, the president of the United States Chess Federation; former world champion Garry Kasparov; British grand master Nigel Short; and former Pan American champion Carla Heredia, who told CNN:
“This is not only about 64 women players, this is a world issue, a women's rights issue. Sports should be free of discrimination. "
Although Paikidze is keeping a low profile, she has garnered an enormous following. The most poignant points of view come from women in Iran.
One supporter launched the campaign, My Stealthy Freedom, on social media, the only platform available to Iranian women. She invites women to share photos of themselves without headscarves — a risky thing to do. The site has more than a million followers.
An imprisoned Iranian woman whose crimes include protesting against public executions, advocating for children's rights, and publishing a photo of herself on social media without a headscarf, fights for human rights while incarcerated. She started a petition supporting Paikidze.
Another woman activist in Iran sent a letter to FIDE making it clear that the hijab is not part of Iranian culture, but rather a law imposed by a clerical regime. In her message, she urged FIDE to ask Iran to host the tournament in accordance with international standards. Statute 1.2 of FIDE's handbook reads: “FIDE rejects discriminatory treatment for national, political, racial, social, or religious reasons, or on account of gender.”
Yet another woman sent this message through an intermediary in Tehran. Referring to heads of state and celebrities who have worn the hijab while visiting Iran, she said:
"Paikidze is brave to give up her chance to be world chess champion. She is the first Westerner to say that I am standing for my own dignity as well as for the dignity of Iranian women. For more than thirty years, we've been witnessing female politicians, tourists, athletes, and diplomats wearing hijab. They're supporting the suppression of women by the Iranian government, and negating years of efforts by our women activists. Putting on a head scarf may look respectful for the moment, but for us it is a life sentence.”
But Mitra Hejazipour, one of Iran’s five grand masters, has another point of view. She worries the boycott could jeopardize the small gains women have been able to make. Women's sports in Iran already receive little funding and are subject to Islamic law even when competitions are held outside of our country. She told the Guardian:
"This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen. We haven't been able to host any world championships in other sporting fields. These games are an opportunity for Iranian women to show our strength.”
There are many perspectives when it comes to fighting for personal freedom. The best voice to leave you with is Paikidze’s. She leaves no doubt about her motive and her chess move.
“By participating, I would be forced to submit to forms of oppression designed specifically for women. It sets the wrong example, particularly for young girls interested in chess.”
Checkmate! Supporting women's rights is the true measure of a champion.
Sources: washingtontimes.com, chessgames.com, nytimes.com, marieclaire.com.