‘Unacceptable’: Female Chess Champ Objects to Iran’s Hijab Requirement

By Patrick Goodenough | October 4, 2016 | 4:26 AM EDT

United States 2016 women’s chess champion Nazi Paikidze-Barnes says FIDE should not hold a women's competition in Iran where wearing the hijab is mandatory. (Photo: Paikidze/Twitter)

(CNSNews.com) – The world chess federation FIDE said Tuesday it was “reviewing all options” for the comfort of participants in a women’s world championship competition to be held in Tehran in February, after controversy erupted over an Iranian requirement that players wear the hijab in line with Islamic norms.

At least one competitor, United States 2016 women’s chess champion Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, has come out publicly against the decision to hold the event in Iran because of the hijab issue, a stance which she says has drawn both supportive and negative – “even threatening” – responses.

“I think it's unacceptable to host a WOMEN'S World Championship in a place where women do not have basic fundamental rights and are treated as second-class citizens,” Paikidze-Barnes said in a message posted on social media.

Paikidze-Barnes, who is of Georgian heritage, said she would not “wear a hijab and support women’s oppression. Even if it means missing one of the most important competitions of my career.”

FIDE press officer Anastasiya Karlovich said in response to queries Tuesday that the governing body has not received any official complaints from any competitor eligible to take part in the championship in Tehran.

Karlovich said it was not a FIDE regulation or requirement that women taking part in the event wear the Islamic garment, which traditionally covers the head and chest.

At the same time, she pointed to British foreign office travel advice that visitors to Iran “should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions at all times and be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend.”

(The U.S. State Department advises visitors to “[c]onsult a guide book on Iran to determine how to dress and behave properly and respectfully. Women should expect to wear a headscarf and a long jacket that covers the arms and upper legs while in public.”)

“FIDE is nevertheless reviewing all possible solutions for the players’ comfort and will discuss all the issues with the organizers in Iran during meetings in the next few weeks,”

Karlovich said.

The decision to allow Iran’s national chess federation to host the women’s competition was taken at a FIDE congress in Baku, Azerbaijan last month.

Wearing the hijab, chess players Sarasadat Khademalsharieh of Iran and Antoaneta Stefanova of Bulgaria at the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix in Tehran in February 2016. (Photo: FIDE)

According to Karlovich, no other federation offered to host the event, and since there were no objections from any of the delegates – representing 159 national federations – the proposal was accepted.

Iran’s “very experienced” national federation has hosted women’s chess events in the past, including the Asian women’s championships in 2007 and 2011, a women’s grand prix last February, and smaller events.

On all occasions, Karlovich said, “there were no complaints from the players or officials and everybody respected the laws of the country, including the dress requirements.”

The hijab requirement during those previous events may not have brought complaints from competitors, but it prompted harsh criticism on some online chess discussion forums.

“Why would smart young modern women subject themselves to wearing that nonsense on their head?” asked one reader of an article on the grand prix competition in Tehran last February.

“People sometimes conform without thinking about the actual meaning of what they conform to, agree with and the message it sends out. As a well educated woman and firmly grounded in my faith I would not have conformed in this situation,” commented another.

A third wrote, “Where is the backbone of these women players? Was not one of them courageous enough to defy the hijab mandated by Iran's mad mullahs?”

Meanwhile Paikidze-Barnes says her boycott stance has brought mixed responses – both “kind and heartfelt messages from across the globe” and “hurtful and even threatening messages.”

“Unfortunately other qualified participants of the championship have not stood behind this point of view,” she said. “At this point, it seems that FIDE will continue with their initial decision.”

She voiced the hope that, whatever the outcome, the publicity around the issue will help “to raise awareness and to spread the conversation about the women of Iran fighting against discrimination every single day.”

Susan Polgar, who heads the FIDE women’s committee, the Commission for Women’s Chess, said it was not involved in the decision to grant Iran hosting rights and “has not taken any official position.”

“We are actively talking to female players who qualified for the upcoming Women’s World Championship for their feedback,” she said.

Sixty-four women have qualified to play in the knockout tournament.

One of them, Koneru Humpy of India, told ESPN she does not object to playing in the hijab.

“Each religion has its own customs. I believe we need to respect and follow their traditions,” said Humpy, who is ranked fourth in the world and wore the hijab while competing in the women’s grand prix event in Iran last February.

“Though I felt some discomfort in the first few days, I slowly got used to it,” she said.

Iran chess federation president Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh told the Tehran Times the body was well-prepared to host next February’s world championship.

“It will be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen,” he said. “It’s not right to call for a boycott.”

(Paikidze-Barnes’ first name is reportedly relatively common in Georgia, meaning “delicate” and pronounced Nahzee.)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow