Women’s Chess Championship Stirs Up Debate About Hijab
American chess champion Nazi Paikidze has refused to participate in the 2017 Women’s World Chess Championship in retaliation against the host country Iran’s laws, which require women to wear hijabs in public.
Paikidze explained her protest on Instagram, claiming that her boycott is “not because of Iran’s religion or people,” but rather an action against “the government’s laws that are restricting my rights as a woman.”
While there is merit to her decision (Paikidze’s cause has a large following who has expressed its appreciation for her stance), by refusing to agree with Iran’s terms, she is failing to acknowledge the majority of Iranian women who support veiling.
A study conducted in 2010 among 531 young Iranian women by the Baghiatallah University of Medical Sciences showed that 77% of those surveyed preferred strict covering, while only 4% expressed distaste for any type of covering.
Affection towards veiling comes from roots in Islamic culture wherein women are told to cover their bodies with shawls and garments. These garments, such as the hijab, have been worn for millennia to represent women’s modesty; however, Western interpretations of veiling laws have twisted its symbolism to mean oppression instead.
This discrepancy is the driving force behind Paikidze’s protest. Her statement on Instagram clarifies that it is about women’s rights, but the phrasing makes her argument invalid. Her rights, including those she accepts as inherent to all humans, vary from nation to nation.
Iran’s moral code is undoubtedly different from ours, but this difference is what makes living in the world so exciting and fresh. For example, UC Irvine’s cultural diversity is one of its most rewarding aspects, and to stifle it here, or anywhere, would be a shame. In the case between the US and Iran, fighting cultural diversity by disregarding the veiling laws might make matters worse for Iranian women.
Iranian women have traditionally encountered seemingly impassable obstacles when attempting to compete in international sports competitions. Strict dress codes and even stricter punishments for breaking said codes have prevented many women from competing.
However, female athletes have overcome these challenges, with Kimia Alizadeh becoming the first Iranian woman to win a medal in this year’s Olympic Games and Iran becoming more open to hosting women’s sports.
Ironically, the only reason the chess championship is being held in Iran is because it was the only country to volunteer; earlier this year it hosted another female chess event and decided to continue to embrace it.
Though this is a small victory for women athletes it is a victory nonetheless, and to take that away by challenging veiling laws is somewhat misguided.
Iranian woman grandmaster Mitra Hejazipour shares this sentiment, believing that, contrary to Paikidze’s standpoint, participating in the championships is “an opportunity for us to show our strength” rather than show compliance with a patriarchal society.
Hejazipour’s argument is exactly what makes protests such as Paikidze’s so dangerous.
By telling Iran that its veiling laws are discriminatory, Paikidze and her followers are only incensing and isolating Iran further from our ideologies. It then creates a Catch-22 situation wherein Iran rejects Westernization and continues to enforce veiling laws while the West rejects veiling laws and tries to Westernize Iran.
To be clear, I believe that women should be able to pursue whatever they wish. However, I also believe that we are neither responsible nor allowed to force other cultures to adopt our way of thinking.
When the emotional climate towards the hijab suits it, Paikidze and her supporters can work with Iran to remove their veiling laws; until then, they are only strengthening what they oppose.
Isaac Espinosa is a second-year electrical engineering major. He can be reached at email@example.com.