Chess was often at the center of political passions during the Cold War. Now, it’s the subject of another battle that involves another contentious issue: women’s rights and Islam. The World Chess Federation has announced that next year’s women’s world championship will take place in February in Tehran, where players will have to comply with the Iranian dress code that mandates a headscarf for women.
The announcement has touched off a controversy. Reigning U.S. women’s chess champion Nazí Paikidze, who was born overseas in Georgia, has told the media she will boycott the championship unless the venue is changed. “I will NOT wear a hijab and support women’s oppression. Even if it means missing one of the most important competitions of my career,” Paikidze said in a statement to My Stealthy Freedom, an online campaign that opposes forced hijab.
While some other female players, such as Carla Heredia of Ecuador, back Paikidze, her position is not universally popular. Former world champion Susan Polgar, co-chair of the Commission for Women’s Chess for the World Chess Federation, has urged players to “respect cultural differences” and chided Paikidze for airing her concerns on Twitter rather than taking them to the organization.
Some pro-reform Iranian women also criticized Paikidze’s protest. Grandmaster Mitra Hejazipour says the games would be an opportunity for women in Iran. Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian woman jailed for five months last year after entering a stadium for a men’s volleyball game in defiance of a ban on women’s attendance, also has said that isolating Iran would only hurt its women. It’s hard to know to what extent these women’s statements may reflect political pressures from Iran’s authoritarian regime. Nonetheless, they have been the focus of coverage by progressive media such as The Guardian and The Atlantic.
Whatever one thinks of the boycott, the issue highlights important facts often elided in conversations about Islamic head covering. One, it’s blatantly coercive in countries ruled by political Islam. Hijab has been mandatory in Iran since the 1979 revolution; women can be punished for such infractions as letting loose strands of hair show from under the headscarf. Two, it’s blatantly sexist. Men who attend international events in Iran are not required to cover up.
Nonetheless, much progressive discourse on the hijab has focused on advocating for Muslim women in the West to wear the hijab free from both government restrictions and societal prejudice. Social justice activists have promoted such events as World Hijab Day and encouraged non-Muslim women to don the hijab as a display of solidarity. During the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Muslim fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States was hailed as “making history” for competing in a hijab.
Yet some liberal Muslims such as Indian-born American writer Asra Nomani believe the affirmations of hijab are harmful. Even ostensibly voluntary head-covering, they say, is often the result of coercion by family and community. They also argue that veiling, which is not required by the Quran, is a symbol of female submission rooted in the misogynist view that an uncovered woman is indecent.
Criticizing oppressive religious tradition while respecting personal faith-based choices is a delicate balance. But compulsory head-covering for non-Muslim female visitors in Tehran is a potent reminder of that tradition’s oppressive aspects, which progressives and feminists should be the first to criticize. When liberals sidestep these issues out of multicultural deference, they leave the field open to demagogues who use Islam as their boogeyman and Muslims as their scapegoat — as the current U.S. election reminds us.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.