TEHRAN // Female chess players in Iran have hit back at calls to boycott the world championships due to be held in Tehran, after a US champion who opposes the country’s Islamic dress code called for the venue to be moved.
Iranian chess players say the campaign will hurt women in their country.
Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran has required women to wear the Islamic headscarf in public places but US chess champion Nazi Paikidze-Barnes has said she will boycott the Tehran championships in February because she refuses to wear the hijab.
“This campaign against the tournament is against Iranian women and it doesn’t help at all,” said Sara Khademalsharieh, a 19-year-old international master from Iran.
“It’s the first time we are hosting a world championship, not only in chess but [in any] sport, and I think it’s very important for Iranian women to have this chance to hold such major events.”
Her comments were echoed by teammate Mitra Hejazipour, a 23-year-old grandmaster.
“The hijab is not oppression. We are used to it and it’s one of Iran’s laws and we accept it,” she said.
Paikidze-Barnes has launched a petition calling for the tournament to be moved.
“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,” the 22-year-old Georgian-American wrote on Instagram.
Her petition has been backed by some leading figures in chess, including Nigel Short, the British coach who once trained Iran’s national team.
Over the years, women have pushed back the boundaries of the law, with many, particularly in the capital, wearing loose, brightly coloured headscarves far back on their heads.
But they still risk fines and even lashings from “morality police” if they go too far.
The head of Iran’s chess federation, Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh, said the calls for a boycott were unreasonable.
“Everywhere in the world, there are rules on how to cover your body. There is no place in the world where people can wear nothing in public,” he said.
The head of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), Geoffrey Borg, expressed surprise at the boycott campaign and said federation members had not expressed “the slightest objection” when Iran was selected as host.
Khademalsharieh and Hejazipour said the interests of Iranian women were better served by engagement with the world than by boycotts.
She pointed to the example of karate, in which women were previously banned from competing in the hijab.
“Now [women wearing the hijab] are allowed and they are getting some medals and I think this helps Iranian women more than isolating the country,” said Khademalsharieh.