Stanescu-Bellu: The Wrong Move

Protesting the Women’s Chess Championship is counterproductive.

by Sofia Stanescu-Bellu | 10/14/16 12:30am

As a female chess player, I had to prepare myself every time I stepped into the tournament hall for one simple truth: I would most likely be the only woman there. Sure, there are women that play chess — the tournaments for younger children or lower ranked players are filled with them, but as they get older and the playing level increases, almost all drop out, unable to handle the pressure of having to constantly prove their worth in a field where few appreciate female effort.

Chess is a sport still struggling to bridge the gender gap and increase the number of women competing at an elite level, where compensation — as if it’s a surprise — is more than two times less than what it is for men. There are almost 8,000 active female chess players in the United States compared to almost 60,000 men. In an activity that is desperately in need of women, the smallest, negative act against female participation can do immense harm. For instance, the 2016 U.S. Women’s Chess National Champion Nazi Paikidze has recently announced her intention to boycott the World Women’s Chess Championship in Tehran, Iran. As one of the most promising chess talents playing for the U.S., the reigning U.S. Women’s Chess Champion and an open advocate for the women in chess movement, Paikidze’s choice is a potentially lethal move that could cripple female representation in this incredibly complex and fascinating game.

Paikidze’s decision was made to protest against a rule requiring players to wear a hijab in the hopes that the tournament will be relocated or postponed. She has framed her decision as a protest against women’s oppression, stating that it is “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.” And yet, while her intentions are good, her action might backfire.

As Paikidze has pointed out, Iran’s theocratic regime limits women’s freedoms by requiring them to abide by stricter standards than men. It’s also a country where chess is considered “haram,” or forbidden, by the Islamic leadership. Hosting the Women’s World Chess Championship in a country that hasn’t hosted any event of a similar caliber for women in its entire history is a revolutionary act. This tournament is one of the only chances for female Iranian chess players to show their country and the world what they are capable of. It’s also important to note that many of the women competing come from poor backgrounds, and the world championship is one of the only opportunities they have to try and create a better future for themselves.

Paikidze is encouraging others to join her in boycotting this important tournament and has even created an online petition to do so. With this, she is effectively asking others to help her block Iranian women’s only chance to gain recognition in their own country. Considering that Paikidze is an advocate for the increased participation of women in chess, this boycott is the antithesis of what she claims to stand for.

Let me be clear: choosing to host the Women’s World Chess Championship in Iran was a mistake to begin with. The World Chess Federation should not have even considered Tehran as a viable venue option. But given that Tehran was the only city with a bid to host the event, and the championship must be held each year, there was no other option. Iran has been the host of previous international chess events, and no one has voiced their outrage. Many of the top players in the world, including women, have played in Iran and have worn the hijab while playing, citing their wish to respect the local traditions and culture. This event should not be considered drastically different from others in the past.

Yes, forcing women to do something — in this case, wear a hijab — is deplorable. Considering Iran’s stance on human rights issues, the problem becomes even more revolting. However, boycotting one event will not change a policy that has been around for almost half a century or change an entire country’s views on the way religion should be integrated into everyday life. Providing women a forum to demonstrate their prowess, however, can go a long way for securing more rights.

If you look closely at the comments on Paikidze’s petition, there are quite a few racist statements from supporters that lead one to question the true intentions of many of those in favor of this protest. Is this boycott about empowering women or fulfilling a political agenda? If the tournament cannot be moved, which seems to be the case, what’s done is done. It would be a shame to call it off and deprive Iranian women of their chance in the spotlight just because some people decided to make this tournament a political statement. The tournament should be about the women competing in it and them alone.

This article should not be misconstrued as a statement of support of Iran and its policies, but rather a critique of the way Paikidze chose to attack them. Women’s rights and freedoms have been and will continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future, in Iran and beyond. The gender gap, the wage gap and the representation of women in society aren’t issues to be taken lightly, either. For the women of Iran, attending the Women’s World Chess Championship is an unparalleled opportunity to show the world what they are capable of achieving. If giving those women and others a chance to show off their talent means wearing a hijab and respecting what is a very integral, albeit controversial, part of Iranian culture, then that sacrifice is a small one to make. We need to focus on actions that will visibly affect on a women’s position in societies throughout the world. This boycott is not one of them.