Iran, chess, and the psychological bullying of non-hijabi defiant women


A poisonous debate has erupted since Nazi Paikidze, a 22-year-old American champion chess player, announced her decision to boycott next year’s World Chess Championship competition in Iran. A stream of articles published criticism about her decision to boycott and her launch of an online petition to challenge the chess federation’s decision. Critics argued that a boycott is not the most appropriate way to go about this and that it would hurt women in Iran.

naz-chess

US women’s champion Nazi Paikidze

These attacks on Nazi Paikidze are not just absurd, they also reflect an attempt at psychological bullying that aims to force Paikidze and others to abandon their fight for basic freedom of choice. In today’s world, which sets increasingly high expectations for democratic nations and very low expectations from oppressive regimes such as Iran, Nazi Paikidze and her supporters have been labeled as “regressive” and “reductionist.” Iran’s mandatory hijab has been described as “a light headscarf and a modest outfit.”

To understand the absurdity of those accusations, let’s reverse the situation and ask: What would critics of Nazi Paikidze do if another country forced Muslim hijabi female competitors to remove their hijab during competitions? Would they stick to their argument and ask Muslim women to obey the rules by removing their “light headscarves” for the broader benefit of women in sport?

When images leaked to the media of French police allegedly forcing a Burkini wearing Muslim woman to undress, the images ____ rightly____ galvanized the entire world and united many in outrage until the French supreme court lifted the ban on Burkini, which was being enforced by some local regions in France. A similar reaction, perhaps with more ferocity and anger, would be expected to erupt if any country dared to mandate a dress code for a sports competition and force Muslim women to remove their veil. The hypocrisy is that critics want non-hijabi women to not make a fuss and instead show “solidarity” and “sympathy.”

 

Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad – Credit  -Alchetron

But what solidarity and sympathy are pro-Iran commentators talking about? Would attendance help Iranian women? I turned to one brave Iranian woman, journalist Masih Alinejad, whose ground-breaking Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom has encouraged Iranian women to discard their hijabs in public and enjoy a brief moment of freedom. She has earned the attention of hundreds of thousands of people globally. Alinejad told me of her delight that such a debate is taking place, because the controversy sheds light on the issue of the compulsory hijab and the justified fight against it.

She added, “There is no reason, legally or morally, to force non-Iranians to wear a compulsory hijab. Especially if they are athletes who can either submit to these unjust laws or miss out on their opportunity to compete at a world event. The Islamic Republic has no right to impose such restrictions. At the Rio Olympics, Muslim women competed in their Islamic dress, and no one forced them to change into other modes of dress.”

Furthermore, Alinejad confirmed my worst fear, stating that the Islamic Republic “could use the championship as a propaganda tool to tell Iranian women that even non-Iranians are comfortable with wearing the compulsory hijab.” She added, the “Islamic Republic is under huge internal pressure over the compulsory hijab, and such a championship would boost its efforts.”

Indeed, forcing non-hijabi women to wear the hijab would neither help them to compete nor help Iranian women in their quest for freedom. First, competing in an unfamiliar garment would be incredibly limiting to women unacquainted with this dress code, depriving them of the physical comfort they need while playing a mentally challenging game. Second, competing in Iran would not be of any general help to Iranian women fighting oppression. Instead, forcing the hijab on non-Muslim women would normalize the hijab in the eye of the world as natural and acceptable. It would easily be used as a propaganda tool for the regime, as Masih Alinejad rightly predicted.

Years ago, I decided to temporarily surrender my right to not wear the hijab when I visited the Iranian republic. It was to put it mildly, painful. Yes, it was no burqa, but it was still limiting and annoying. My only moments of freedom occurred in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains on my way to see the historic Almut [death] Castle of the Assassins (a feared medieval cult that dispatched killers to murder leading political figures). On my way, I met two Iranian ladies enjoying a walk in the hills. They encouraged me to take my scarf off. “No one would mind here,” they said with a warm smile.

It was rather ironic that I was only offered open freedom, albeit briefly, near the remains of a castle full of tales of oppression and injustice. On that day, I realized that outsiders will have no impact on the quest of Iranian women for freedom. As an outsider, I need their support, not the other way around. The same will be true for the participants of the chess championship. They would only have to rely on Iranian women for guidance regarding how to deal with the veil, and they would depart afterward, leaving Iran’s reality unchanged and unimproved.

Make no mistake; the Islamic headscarf is part and parcel of the Mullahs’ Islamist identity. The Mullahs may show pragmatism in politics, but they would never sacrifice an identity they have forged over the last 37 years. They simply cannot abandon it. They may ease some rules for women, allowing them a bit of freedom, but a total rejection of the headscarf would never be allowed by the Mullahs’ regime, despite the best intentions of any solidarity campaign.

It is about time to abandon wishful thinking and show respect to women like Nazi Paikidze, who dare to stand for freedom of choice. While some accept the Islamic veil, others reject it; the only way forward is to respect the right of both. Iran has a choice: it can either accept international rules, allow non-hijabi women to compete or choose not to host the championship. As for the women of Iran, they are stealthy fighters. One day they will prevail___ and it won’t be because some western women showed solidarity by wearing a hijab.

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues
This entry was posted in Best Read, Iran, Islam, women rights and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Iran, chess, and the psychological bullying of non-hijabi defiant women

  1. Pingback: Iran, chess, and the psychological bullying of non-hijabi defiant women | Nervana | Mark Geoffrey Kirshner

  2. Mohamed Noureldin says:

    Hope the human identity prevail not some ideological identity made up by someone.

  3. NIGEL SHORT says:

    Excellent article. Hits the nail on the head.

  4. Peter Haverson says:

    Great article. I hope the venue for the Women’s World Chess Championship is changed, but it seems unlikely.

  5. Joe from HK says:

    Fantastic article as usual from Dr Nervana 🙂

  6. just.my.name.here says:

    “To understand the absurdity of those accusations, let’s reverse the situation and ask: What would critics of Nazi Paikidze do if another country forced Muslim hijabi female competitors to remove their hijab during competitions? Would they stick to their argument and ask Muslim women to obey the rules by removing their “light headscarves” for the broader benefit of women in sport? … A similar reaction, perhaps with more ferocity and anger, would be expected to erupt if any country dared to mandate a dress code for a sports competition and force Muslim women to remove their veil … (Alinejad) At the Rio Olympics, Muslim women competed in their Islamic dress, and no one forced them to change into other modes of dress.”

    I find this discussion of “what critics of Nazi Paikidze [would] do” to be a bit bizarre. For instance, I don’t know of any niqab-wearing female chess players offhand, but obviously they are unlikely to be allowed to play in various Western countries. You seem to act as if mode of dress hasn’t been an issue for Islamic women playing sports in the West, but it has been some time, and at least somewhat prominently for over a decade. Your presumed “reversing [of] the situation” largely runs contrary to actual events that have occurred, where the West has indeed tried to induce Islamic women to conform.

    Principally, usually it is the sporting federation (not the country) that mandates a dress code. The most obvious is the Volleyball Federation mandating bikinis for female beach volleyball players until early 2012. There was not much “ferocity and anger” over this in the West, and only the efforts of countries like Egypt (and Iran) got the dress code changed (and indeed the iconic picture of the hijabi beach volleyball player(s) was noteworthy from Rio).

    Moreover, contrary to Alienjad’s rosy view, some Olympic sports still *do* have an incompatible dress code (particularly pool events), and perhaps unsurprisingly you (or Alinejad) just simply didn’t see “Muslim women compet[ing] in their Islamic dress” in such events in Rio— so no one “force[s] them to change”, they just de facto ‘boycott’ the event (like Paikidze). I’m not quite sure how this fits into your idea of acceptance of “international rules”, but plainly the rules as seen in Rio were largely reflections of Western values.

    As an aside, to bolster your idea of using the event as propaganda, the chess women’s grand prix in February in Teheran not coincidentally commenced on the anniversary of the ayatollahs, with the pre-event poster of the women with non-hijab pics (not available in Iran, but easily found on the world chess federation website) then being replaced by hijabi pics from the opening ceremony. To me, something like this should be made the centre of any argument, not some rather tenuous arguments concerning other sports, and comparisons to what the West imposes on Muslim women.

    • nervana111 says:

      Funny you are bashing me, but did not bother to write an article yourself to highlight your point of view. I am afraid you are wrong. In Rio Olympics, many Muslim women competed wearing scarves, including in beech volley ball, an Egyptian woman competed with scarf and her photos were every where. The fact that you did not see that is not my fault.

      • just.my.name.here says:

        I am not “bashing” you, but merely pointing out that I think you have a contracted view of the general subject area (recent history of women’s sports and dress codes) and IMO are trying to spin it to your viewpoint in the given situation. If I were to write my own article, I would try to not make it so opinion-based, and it would likely end up more of a research paper (and probably you wouldn’t read it anyway).

        Moreover, I specifically pointed out the iconic beach volleyball pictures in Rio (I guess your line about “The fact that you did not see that is not my fault” fits well here),
        though I contrasted it to the volleyball rules prior to 2012 and indicated that (contrary to the viewpoint of your article) the changes were largely due to Islamic efforts to ensure Western accommodation, and indeed the “absurdity” and “hypocrisy” on the matter at that time were more prevalent in the West.

        Again I doubt you care to research the subject, but here are some resources about the effect on Islamic women of dress codes in sports (giving a variety of views):

        Murray, S. J. (2002). Unveiling Myths: Muslim Women and Sport, Women’s Sports Foundation (a seminal work, though of course dated by now)

        Muslim Athletic Wear Covers Skin without Cramping Style. Journey of Faith in
        National Geographic Magazine, 22 (2009), 76-89.

        Yasmeen Iqbal Qureshi and Soniha Aslam Ghouri, Muslim female athletes in sports and dress code: major obstacle in international competitions, J. Exp. Sci. 2011; 2(11): 09-13

        Jalees Rehman, The dress code barrier for Muslim women in sports (2011, regarding Kulsoom Abdulla and Na’ama Shafir wishing to retain respectively Islamic and Jewish modesty norms), Huffington Post blog

        Mahfoud Amara, Sport, Politics and Society in the Arab World (Global Culture and Sport Series), 2011 [a more general survey]

        Marwat et al., Sport Performance of Muslim Women and Different Constraints in Their Way to Participation in Sport, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 4, No. 10(1); August 2014

        The history largely divides into the period where hijabs were banned, and then when in various sports this has been lifted after the “sports hijab” became more prevalent, probably FIFA the most important exemplar (2012), with judo, weightlifting, and others (boxing) changing their rules for London 2012.

        If you want a list of sports where you *didn’t* see hijabs in Rio due to organizational bans of sports federations on dress, it would still include: basketball (where Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and others are challenging the FIBA ban), most any water sport (swimming, diving, polo), and I think some other minor ones (where safety is still considered an issue) like wrestling and trampoline gymnastics.

        Aya Medany (Egypt) wanting to compete in the modern pentathlon swimming event in more modest attire would fit here too (she retired before Rio, but often complained about this in the latter years of her career).

        There was also a kerfuffle in 2012 over the badminton federation seeking to require women to wear dresses/skirts for a more “attractive presentation”, which disadvantaged Muslims who wore (cumbersome) sweats/pants underneath. This was eventually disbanded. Again I don’t recall the intellectual elites from Western nations protesting too much, and it was Malaysia, India, etc., that forced the issue.

      • nervana111 says:

        You are not “pointing out what you think” you are flexing your research muscles in a condescending way and even judging what I will think and what I will read. By all means write your superior knowledge in your supreme research sites. The debate with you is frankly a waste of time, because your self-rightous attitude will dismiss any other point of views. Again, write your views wherever you like. No one is stopping you from venting your grievances about the evil West and the poor Muslims, but leave my inferior blog site to others who opt to read it. I actually started to doubt whether you carefully read my piece, because my message is simple: it is up to women to choose their dress code and no one should force anything on them. so if they want to veil themselves while playing, then they should be allowed, but they also have the right NOT to wear hijab and again, no one should force them to wear it. Clearly freedom of choice is not of concern to you, but you are after dwelling on past grievances and indulging in victimhood.

  7. Pingback: Iran, chess, and the psychological bullying of non-hijabi defiant women - Muslim World Today

  8. Kim Bhari says:

    I enjoyed reading the article. This is the 7th or 8th article on the hijab and chess!! I am one of those who support the event going ahead. A smaller event was held in 2015 (http://www.kenyachessmasala.com/2016/03/tehran-2016-grand-prix.html). A key point is that this event has struggled to find a sponsor and Iran stepped in and this was approved at the General Assembly. A bit of a tight corner now.

  9. Danny Nelson says:

    The Islamic world will have a leg to stand on with complaints on the day Muslim-only zones no longer exist & people who choose not to practice islam are free to exercise their respective choices of lifestyle in all nations controlled by Muslims without fear of being killed or harassed. Until that day, however any and all claims of intolerance are rooted in hypocrisy.

  10. Pingback: Women’s March and the Selectivity of Anti-Trump Feminism | Nervana

  11. Pingback: The Wicked Truth: Women’s March and the Selectivity of Anti-Trump Feminism - Muslim World Today

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