Why the U.S. Women's Chess Champion Refuses to Play in Iran

In February 2017, the Women’s World Chess Championship will be held in Iran. The U.S. champion, Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, will not be there.

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Oct 26 2016, 2:30pm

Photo by Andreas Kontokanis via Flickr

In February 2017, the Women's World Chess Championship will be held in Iran. The U.S. champion will not be there.

Nazi Paikidze-Barnes has refused to participate in protest of the Islamic Republic's compulsory dress code, which mandates that all women wear hijabs, or headscarves, in public. The law is strictly enforced regardless of a woman's religion or nationality, and therefore would include all 64 competitors at the tournament. "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," she posted on social media. She also wrote that she wouldn't "wear a hijab and support women's oppression even if it means missing one of the most important competitions of my career." (Based on the formula of the tournament, she will not be eligible to compete again until 2019.)

Read More: We Sat with Iranian Protestor Darya Safaias She Fought to Display Her Banner at the Olympics

Paikidze-Barnes, who was born in Russia and now lives in Las Vegas, started an online petition calling for the World Chess Federation (FIDE) to move the tournament to another country or remove the dress mandate, and has gathered more than 16,000 signatures to date.

As a result of her public stance, the 22-year-old has become the unwitting center of a political maelstrom—one that has seen the international soccer federation (FIFE) pressure the Iranian government to lift its ban on women attending male sporting events, and the sports world shaming the international volleyball federation (FIVB) for not doing the same. Paikidze-Barnes has ignited a fierce debate in traditional and social media, most notably in Iran, where women have been fighting this fight for decades.

The struggles began after the 1979 revolution, which replaced the monarchy of the Shah with the theocratic Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The new regime lowered marriage age from 18 to 13 years old, shut down family clinics, outlawed abortion, and legalized bigamy. Following strict interpretation of the Quran, it stripped women of the most basic rights: singing alone in public, riding a bicycle, and leaving the country without their husbands' permission.

The bottom line: By playing in the tournament without abiding by the Islamic dress code, Paikidze-Barnes would be breaking Sharia, or Islamic, law.

Players at the 2016 Khazar Cup, a chess tournament in Iran. Photo by Andreas Kontokanis via Flickr

The tournament ended up in Iran when no other country offered to host it. In a press conference earlier this month, FIDE's chief executive, Geoffrey Borg, said, "Chess players should respect the laws of countries." The head of Iran's chess federation, Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh, agreed. "Everywhere in the world, there are rules on how to cover your body," he said. "There is no place in the world where people can wear nothing in public."

But Iranian activist and journalist Masih Alinejad says they are missing the point. "This is a discriminatory law, it's not a cultural issue," she told VICE Sports last week. "The government of Iran forces all women—non-Iranian, non-Muslim, and children—to wear hijab. All women should stand up and speak out. By accepting compulsory hijab, you are giving the Iranian government more power to oppress women."

The penalty for violating the dress code ranges from lashings to imprisonment. According to Alinejad, from 2014 to 2015, 3.6 million Iranian women were detained for wearing inadequate hijabs, meaning they wore the headscarf too loosely, showed too much hair, or exposed their necklines. This past March, eight female Iranian models were arrested for revealing their unadorned heads on Instagram. A month later, Tehran police chief General Hossein Sajedinia hired 7,000 undercover agents to crack down on violators.

Alinejad, who was forced to flee Iran and now lives in New York, has launched the campaign My Stealthy Freedom on the only platform available for Iranian women: social media. On it, she invites women to share photos of themselves without headscarves. The site has more than a million followers.

"Nazi is not boycotting the games but it is the Islamic Republic which is boycotting Nazi," Alinejad said. "She has earned the right to compete in an international tournament and it is the Islamic Republic which puts another hurdle in front of her and says, 'You can only compete if you conform to our dress code.' Where in the FIDE regulations does it say that countries can impose religious rules on players?"

Gary Walters, the president of the U.S. Chess Federation, agrees—and has expressed support of the U.S. champion. In Walters's words, "We reminded FIDE that the forced wearing of a hijab or other dress is contrary to FIDE's handbook." (Statute 1.2 reads, in part, that FIDE "rejects discriminatory treatment for national, political, racial, social, or religious reasons, or on account of gender.")

Susan Polgar, chair of FIDE's Commission for Women's Chess, did not respond to VICE's request for a comment, but posted this message on social media: "No one from FIDE Commission for Women's Chess, including me, has made ANY comment to endorse the venue or the regime. In fact, I specifically said if any player has a problem with it, she can and should voice her opinion to the Commission for Women's Chess or FIDE and we can address it in our next meeting. So far, Commission for Women's Chess (WOM) has NOT received any official complaint from any of the 64 participants."

Paikidze-Barnes at the Baku Chess Olympiad last month. Photo by Andreas Kontokanis via Flickr

Paikidze-Barnes is keeping a low profile and did not respond to an interview request. But despite her avoidance of the spotlight, Alinejad says, the chess champion has garnered an enormous following of female activists inside Iran.

Atena Daemi is one such activist. Sentenced to seven years in prison, she is out on bail awaiting the outcome of her appeal. Daemi's crimes include protesting against public executions, downloading protest songs, advocating for children's rights, and publishing a photo of herself on social media without a headscarf. While on bail, she continues to fight for human rights. She started a petition in support of Paikidze-Barnes, and sent a letter to FIDE making it clear that the hijab is not part of Iranian culture but, rather, a law imposed by a clerical regime. In her message, she urged FIDE to ask Iran to host the tournament in accordance with international standards. The letter, she says, has gone unanswered.

Other supporters of Paikidze-Barnes include former world champion Garry Kasparov, British grandmaster Nigel Short, and former Pan American champion Carla Heredia. Now an assistant chess coach at Texas Tech University, Heredia told CNN, "This is not only about 64 players, this is a world issue, a women's rights issue. That's why I'm speaking up. Sports should be free of this type of discrimination."

But Mitra Hejazipour, one of Iran's five grandmasters, worries that the boycott could undermine the tenuous female sports scene in Iran, which receives little funding and is subject to Islamic law even at competitions held outside of the country. "This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen," she told the Guardian. "We haven't been able to host any world championships in other sporting fields for women. It's not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it's an opportunity for us to show our strength."

Daemi spoke with VICE Sports through an intermediary from her home in Tehran. While respecting Hejazipour's position, she respectfully disagreed. "We've been witnessing, for more than thirty years, female politicians not respecting their own dignity," she said, referring to heads of state who have worn the hijab while visiting Iran. "When tourists, athletes, and diplomats wear hijab, they are supporting the suppression by the Iranian government and wasting years of efforts by women activists.

"Putting on a head scarf briefly may be amusing, but for us it is a prison sentence. Nazi was brave to give up the chance to be champion and to stand for her own choice. She is the first Westerner to say that I am standing for my own dignity as well."

Even as she sacrifices the chance to become world champion, Paikidze-Barnes remains steadfast. "I am honored and proud to have qualified to represent the United States in the Women's World Championship," she has publicly said. "But, if the situation remains unchanged, I will most certainly not participate in this event."

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