Who benefits from a chess championship boycott? Not Iranian women
Ghoncheh Ghavami
Instead of withdrawing because of Iran’s jihab rule, Nazí Paikidze should come and see how our society really works – and how women fight oppression every day

The American chess champion Nazí Paikidze has announced that she will boycott next year’s women’s world chess championship hosted by Iran, in protest at the Islamic Republic’s mandatory hijab rule for women. In an online petition, she says that she views wearing of the hijab – which is compulsory for female visitors in Iran – as supporting the oppression of women.

In response to the hijab controversy, Sara Khadem and Mitra Hejazipour, Iranianwoman grandmasters, have made clear in interviews with the Guardian and the New York Times that they believe a boycott would be detrimental to women’s sports in Iran. The story – which was immediately reduced to a binary between women’s sport versus the right to wear what you want – has stirred widespread discussions in the media and on social networks.

My personal experience might be helpful to other chess players considering whether or not to follow Paikidze’s example or to support her position. Two years ago, I was detained in my home country Iran by the morality police for not adhering to hijab standards. I was transferred to a detention centre, and what I saw there took me by surprise.


Iranian women are not afraid of these detentions any more. They are usually released within a few hours, and afterwards they go back to the same loose, half-hearted form of hijab they were wearing before. The morality police have been defeated by the daily actions of millions of ordinary Iranian women, and this policing is failing to bear the fruit its founders had hoped for. Women have challenged the official standards of hijab promoted by the government and have pushed boundaries by simply refusing to keep out of public.

Upon my release, I realised that I had not been aware of the significance of the daily, uncoordinated, decentralised acts of resistance put up by Iranian women.

Iranian women provide opportunities for collective action through their everyday defiance of government policies. Their acts of resistance, though mainly instinctive and uncalculated, are the most important instruments in the development of collective identities.

Obviously, I recognise Pakidize’s right – and that of every other human being – to choose how to dress and I applaud her insistence on her rights as a woman. But I believe that her choice to boycott the games is misguided.

A reductionist approach to the mandatory hijab has, in the past, functioned as a pretext to reinforce a rift between Iranand the west, as well as insinuating that Iranian women are passive beings who simply lack the will to improve their situation.

Lack of knowledge about the complex networks of Iran’s patriarchal system and misunderstanding the issue of gender in Iran has prompted simplistic campaigns outside Iran. These campaigns focus solely on the law requiring hijab and overlook the activism of Iranian women not just against this oppressive law, but also against other forms of prejudice, from social and economic to political discrimination. There is the implication that Iranian women need a foreign saviour to be liberated from their own country’s rules.

It is Paikidize’s right not to adhere to the compulsory hijab, a visible form of oppression, but boycotting the event and not traveling to Iran will not help Iranian women realise their demands. The Iranian women’s movement for equality began decades ago and Iranian women have endured heavy costs in this path.

As an Iranian woman who fights for women’s rights, I would like to extend an invitation to Paikidize to travel to Iran and to see our society with her own eyes , so that she can learn and recognise the achievements of Iranian women. It is an invitation for her to familiarise herself with the daily lives of a nation that, consciously or unconsciously, has not acquiesced to oppression.

Presenting the international community with a one-sided narrative is ineffective. In order to fight oppression, we should not act as saviours, but stand beside each other in solidarity and sympathy. A boycott is not the way.


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