Controversy has swirled since the World Chess Federation (FIDE) announced Iran as the location for their 2017 annual tournament. The country is requiring all female participants to wear a hijab. If participants do not comply with the country’s request, they will face arrest by the Gasht-e Ershad, the country’s morality police. Just last week, Nazí Paikidze-Barnes, a Georgian-American championship chess player, released a statement through Instagram announcing her boycott of the upcoming tournament, claiming that “…I know a lot of Iranian women are bravely protesting this forced law bravely and risking a lot by doing so.” While some have supported Paikidze-Barnes in her choice, other female tournament participants have condemned her boycott, in particular Mitra Hejazipour, an Iranian chess player and grandmaster. Hejazipour stated, “It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”
Paikidze-Barnes’ choice to boycott the 2017 FIDE tournament in Iran raises numerous questions regarding women’s rights in Islamic countries, the willingness of participants to abide by a country’s religious norms, and the acceptance of other cultures in international competitions. As a staff, we have kept in mind that we were all speaking from American viewpoints, and as such, our own opinion will reflect U.S. religious and cultural customs. Our collective opinion is somewhat conflicted.
On one hand, we realize the importance of participants respecting the religious heritage of another country. If the FIDE tournament was in a country which asked their participants to abide by certain food requirements, it would only seem reasonable on behalf of the players to respect this request. Where this argument fails, however, is the actual context of the situation. One could argue that Iran forcing players to wear a hijab at the FIDE tournament does not fall into the category of religious sensitivity, but rather a reflection of the country’s oppression of women. One staff member brought up the example of FIFA’s policy change in 2014, which lifted the ban on religious head covers, allowing women to wear the hijab during official games. This expanded the sport to many new players and was very well received. It only seems reasonable that Iran would do the same, by allowing women the choice to wear a hijab or not, thus allowing for more female participants.
With all this in mind, we wanted to address a very important group within the FIDE tournament, that being the host country’s female participants. As Hejazipour noted in her rebuttal of Paikidze-Barnes, the FIDE tournament is an opportunity for Iranian women to be involved in an international competition. We saw that, in a way, Paikidze-Barnes wearing a hijab and actively participating in the event could do more for the empowerment of women in Iran than her own publicized boycott. The Iranian women’s FIDE team is excited to host the largest women’s sporting event ever to occur in Iran. The Foghorn believes they are reasonably offended that Paikidze-Barnes is attempting to take this away from them.
While Paikidze-Barnes feels like her personal civil rights have been violated, the FIDE tournament is, in fact, a step forward for women’s rights in Iran. As one of the women of our staff wrote, “If I were in this competition, I would gladly participate in a new culture if it meant expanding opportunities to the country’s historically oppressed female population.” We believe that the most vulnerable group in this competition is Iran’s women. The international players of FIDE have a choice whether to support them through their active involvement in making the event a success, or choosing to boycott, thus diminishing the pride of the very women being oppressed.