U.S. Female Chess Champ’s Iran Hijab Protest Gains Ground

By Patrick Goodenough | October 11, 2016 | 4:13am EDT
U.S. 2016 women’s chess champion Nazi Paikidze-Barnes (Photo: Paikidze-Barnes/Instagram)

(CNSNews.com) – A campaign by the top-ranked women’s chess player in the U.S. challenging mandatory wearing of the hijab at a prestigious women’s competition in Tehran next year is picking up steam, with several high profile players pledging support and a petition nearing its target.

The petition initiated by the Russian-born champion, Nazi (pronounced NahzEE) Paikidze-Barnes aims either to pressure the world governing body FIDE to withdraw women’s world championship hosting rights from Iran, or to have the regulation altered to leave the Islamic head covering decision up to competitors.

As of early Tuesday, her petition was fewer than 70 signatures short of its goal of 15,000.

Paikidze-Barnes intends to send it to FIDE, which up to now has resisted calls to have the venue for next February’s event changed.

She notes that FIDE’s handbook states the organization “rejects discriminatory treatment for national, political, racial, social or religious reasons or on account of sex.”

“Yet, by awarding the championship to Iran, it is breaking that pledge to its members and subjecting them to discrimination on all fronts.”

The petition notes that failure to comply with Iran’s mandatory hijab requirement is punishable by fines or imprisonment.

It also cites speech restrictions for female players, noting that “women have been arrested for speaking out in favor of women’s rights in Iran,” and the fact that the U.S. and several other countries have issued Iran travel warnings to their citizens – who the petition says “would be traveling at their own risk.”

Women who have qualified to compete in the championship “are being asked to choose between achieving their greatest aspirations and protecting their civil liberties – and their lives,” it says.

“These issues reach far beyond the chess world. While there has been social progress in Iran, women’s rights remain severely restricted,” it says. “This is more than one event; it is a fight for women’s rights.”

Paikidze-Barnes’ stance is winning support, inside and outside the chess world.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov expressed his backing in a series of tweets.

“Hosting an official championship in a repressive theocracy demanding all participants wear hijab is bad even for this corrupt FIDE admin,” he said in one.

“I hope the world’s chessplayers, women and men, find the courage to protest FIDE’s decision,” said another. “Women’s rights are human rights. 

Carolina Lujan, an Argentinian woman grandmaster who is one of 64 women around the world who qualifies for the 2017 women’s championship, said in a social media post she was surprised at the FIDE decision to allow Iran to host the event, “knowing some of the laws of this country in relation to human rights and especially those of women.”

“I consider it a danger to me to take part in a competition in a country where by law they can force me to wear hijab or forbid me to work with my trainer in a closed room,” she wrote. “It also scares me that a misunderstanding or my ignorance of the country’s culture can produce an offense that can have me arrested or worse.”

Lujan said she does not intend to boycott the championship, but said she had written to FIDE’s women’s commission to air her concerns, “in the hope they help us finding a solution.”

‘A modern-day conscientious objector’

British grandmaster Nigel Short has called the FIDE decision to hold the event in Tehran “scandalous,” and Emil Sutovsky, an Israeli grandmaster who is president of the non-profit Association of Chess Professionals, is urging people in the chess fraternity who share Paikidze-Barnes’ views to speak out.

“I know very well from the conversations with many top women players, that they are unhappy about the venue,” he wrote on Facebook. “I imagine that there are many [national chess] federations who see a clear problem – but still, no clear stand, no statement, no protest.”

Sutovsky also said he had received an answer from FIDE to an inquiry about the championship in Tehran: “the contract with Iran is signed, and the players will be required to follow all the local laws in regards to dressing.”

He had also asked FIDE about players working with trainers during the event, in the light of Iranian regulations on interaction between men and women who are not married or closely related.

Sutovsky said he had received a “rather odd” response to that query – “common decency to be respected.”

“Now, it is up to the players to decide what do they consider ‘common decency’ in regards to their participation in the event,” he said, adding that the Association of Chess Professionals “will act accordingly.”

The Muslim Reform Movement, an umbrella group of moderate Islamic organizations launched in the U.S. late last year, described Paikidze-Barnes as “a courageous young woman” and “a modern-day conscientious objector,” and urged support for her petition.

The Tehran Times this week quoted an Iranian woman grandmaster, Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, as saying the event in Tehran will provide “a great chance for the Iranian women to show their capabilities.”

FIDE said earlier that when the Iranian federation requested hosting rights for the women’s championships at a congress in Baku last month, none of the delegates, representing 159 national federations, objected.

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