Once again, chess has made headlines not for any moves made on the board, but because FIDE, the game’s byzantine governing body, has awarded the 2017 women’s championship to Iran. This decision—which FIDE says none of its 159 member nations objected to—prompted 22-year-old U.S. women’s champion NazíPaikidze to speak out, on feminist and human rights grounds, against being forced to wear a hijab while playing matches, in accordance with Iranian law.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to host one of the most important women’s tournaments in a venue where, to this day, women are forced to cover up with a hijab,” she said. “I understand and respect cultural differences. But, failing to comply can lead to imprisonment and women’s rights are being severely restricted in general … [and] if the situation remains unchanged, I will most certainly not participate in this event.”
A groundswell of support from within the chess community (and outside of it) has poured in for Paikidze, the 98th-ranked female player in the world. Her petition, which more than 3,000 people have already signed, demands either a change of venue for the event, or that “wearing a hijab be optional and guarantee no discrimination based on gender, nationality, or any other human rights as pointed out in the FIDE handbook.” (It should be noted that a women’s Grand Prix event was held in Tehran earlier this year, in which players were required to wear a hijab.)
In the teeth of worldwide condemnation, #FIDE signs contract confirming #Iran as the venue for the 2017 #Women‘s World #Chess Championship. pic.twitter.com/sp5G3SYyqE
— Nigel Short (@nigelshortchess) October 4, 2016
But the backlash against Paikidze has also been equally intense. Privately, Paikidze wrote that she’s been threatened. The president of the Iranian chess federation said it wasn’t right for Paikidze to call for a boycott. (Paikidze has not called for an outright boycott.) Iranian grandmaster Mitra Hejazipour told The Guardian that a decision not to play in the event would tarnish efforts to promote professional women’s competitions in the country. “We haven’t been able to host any world championship in other sporting fields for women in the past,” she said. “These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Susan Polgar, one of the best female chess players in history and head of FIDE’s commission for women’s chess (WOM), an organization “formed to represent women’s interests in chess,” who argued that the Iranian chess federation saved the day, in a sense, by agreeing to put on a championship that until recently had not secured a host.
Polgar’s opinion on Paikidze’s decision has become a feverish talking point within the chess community, a combative and highly political bunch in their own right, and she and Paikidze have parsed words on Twitter. Polgar said that an article in the The Telegraph misrepresented her statements, and that she did not “defend” FIDE, as the article states, or say that she was consulted about the decision to host the event in Iran. “I never said that,” she said. “We (WOM) have never, ever been involved. All I said was that when I travel to different countries I respect (their) traditions or cultures. I never said that [female chess players] should agree to being forced to wear a hijab. All I said is that it personally wouldn’t have been a problem.” (Her extensive Facebook statement can be found here.)
One can be against regimes & still friends w/ people. I’m Jewish & I have friends who are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Atheists…
— Susan Polgar (@SusanPolgar) October 2, 2016
In the end, Paikidze—who appears to view the hijab as a modern political invention and a symbol of control over women—sent in her objection to FIDE, through those official channels. Polgar said that “as we speak, representatives of FIDE are discussing with the Iranian federation and government what alternatives there are.”
Polgar toes a fine line here, saying that Paikidze “absolutely” has a right to have her opinion, while at the same time saying that “FIDE doesn’t require anybody to wear a hijab; it’s the laws of the country.” In the end, Polgar believes that it would be detrimental for the event to go awry given how important it is to give Iran international women’s events. “It would set that back many years,” she said.
I asked her to consider Paikidze’s viewpoint fully—that her stance is in opposition to a government which mandates a garment that deprives women of their personhood. “I understand where you’re coming from” she said. “My point of view at this point is that it would be wrong for anybody to attack Nazífor her opinions. And it would be wrong for anybody to attack other women—the other 63 players who don’t agree with her decision (and who depend on that income). Let’s see what the alternatives are, what the solutions could be.”
FIDE, famously and fairly, has taken its fair share of hits, in part because of its draconian leader, who is now on the U.S. sanctions list and who has ruled the organization for over 20 years despite a number of ultimately unsuccessful attempts to unseat him, namely from Garry Kasparov. In isolation, this hijab incident looks ugly, but it is a piece of a larger, uglier puzzle.
“How much of a role should a sport have in making a statement in a political issue which has nothing to do with the sport?” asked Polgar. “That’s the biggest question actually. “How much should sport be used as a political platform for one side or another? In this case, athletes are being used as pawn in a much bigger game.”
The question then is, what is that game, and who is doing the politicizing? Many fingers point at FIDE, or at Paikidze, or even at Polgar. But this issue stems from female competitors being forced to wear the hijab according to Iranian law, which is a point none of the aforementioned initially politicized. That was Iran’s doing. And now that a formal request from Paikidze has been filed to FIDE, the organization has the opportunity to make a tough and telling decision—or come to a practical “solution,” as Polgar puts it—on the matter. The question is: What will it be?
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Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.