Iran, chess, and the psychological bullying of non-hijabi defiant women

By Nervana Mahmoud for

A poisonous debate has erupted since Nazi Paikidze, a 22-year-old American champion chess player, announced her decision to boycott next year’s World Chess Championship competition in Iran. A stream of articles published criticism about her decision to boycott and her launch of an online petition to challenge the chess federation’s decision. Critics argued that a boycott is not the most appropriate way to go about this and that it would hurt women in Iran.

naz-chess US women’s champion Nazi Paikidze

These attacks on Nazi Paikidze are not just absurd, they also reflect an attempt at psychological bullying that aims to force Paikidze and others to abandon their fight for basic freedom of choice. In today’s world, which sets increasingly high expectations for democratic nations and very low expectations from oppressive regimes such as Iran, Nazi Paikidze and her supporters have been labeled as “regressive” and “reductionist.” Iran’s mandatory hijab has been described as “a light headscarf and a modest outfit.”

To understand the absurdity of those accusations, let’s reverse the situation and ask: What would critics of Nazi Paikidze do if another country forced Muslim hijabi female competitors to remove their hijab during competitions? Would they stick to their argument and ask Muslim women to obey the rules by removing their “light headscarves” for the broader benefit of women in sport?

When images leaked to the media of French police allegedly forcing a Burkini wearing Muslim woman to undress, the images ____ rightly____ galvanized the entire world and united many in outrage until the French supreme court lifted the ban on Burkini, which was being enforced by some local regions in France. A similar reaction, perhaps with more ferocity and anger, would be expected to erupt if any country dared to mandate a dress code for a sports competition and force Muslim women to remove their veil. The hypocrisy is that critics want non-hijabi women to not make a fuss and instead show “solidarity” and “sympathy.”

ali-nejad-2 Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad – Credit  -Alchetron

But what solidarity and sympathy are pro-Iran commentators talking about? Would attendance help Iranian women? I turned to one brave Iranian woman, journalist Masih Alinejad, whose ground-breaking Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom has encouraged Iranian women to discard their hijabs in public and enjoy a brief moment of freedom. She has earned the attention of hundreds of thousands of people globally. Alinejad told me of her delight that such a debate is taking place, because the controversy sheds light on the issue of the compulsory hijab and the justified fight against it.

She added, “There is no reason, legally or morally, to force non-Iranians to wear a compulsory hijab. Especially if they are athletes who can either submit to these unjust laws or miss out on their opportunity to compete at a world event. The Islamic Republic has no right to impose such restrictions. At the Rio Olympics, Muslim women competed in their Islamic dress, and no one forced them to change into other modes of dress.”

Furthermore, Alinejad confirmed my worst fear, stating that the Islamic Republic “could use the championship as a propaganda tool to tell Iranian women that even non-Iranians are comfortable with wearing the compulsory hijab.” She added, the “Islamic Republic is under huge internal pressure over the compulsory hijab, and such a championship would boost its efforts.”

Indeed, forcing non-hijabi women to wear the hijab would neither help them to compete nor help Iranian women in their quest for freedom. First, competing in an unfamiliar garment would be incredibly limiting to women unacquainted with this dress code, depriving them of the physical comfort they need while playing a mentally challenging game. Second, competing in Iran would not be of any general help to Iranian women fighting oppression. Instead, forcing the hijab on non-Muslim women would normalize the hijab in the eye of the world as natural and acceptable. It would easily be used as a propaganda tool for the regime, as Masih Alinejad rightly predicted.

Years ago, I decided to temporarily surrender my right to not wear the hijab when I visited the Iranian republic. It was to put it mildly, painful. Yes, it was no burqa, but it was still limiting and annoying. My only moments of freedom occurred in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains on my way to see the historic Almut Castle of the Assassins (a feared medieval cult that dispatched killers to murder leading political figures). On my way, I met two Iranian ladies enjoying a walk in the hills. They encouraged me to take my scarf off. “No one would mind here,” they said with a warm smile.

It was rather ironic that I was only offered open freedom, albeit briefly, near the remains of a castle full of tales of oppression and injustice. On that day, I realized that outsiders will have no impact on the quest of Iranian women for freedom. As an outsider, I need their support, not the other way around. The same will be true for the participants of the chess championship. They would only have to rely on Iranian women for guidance regarding how to deal with the veil, and they would depart afterward, leaving Iran’s reality unchanged and unimproved.

Make no mistake; the Islamic headscarf is part and parcel of the Mullahs’ Islamist identity. The Mullahs may show pragmatism in politics, but they would never sacrifice an identity they have forged over the last 37 years. They simply cannot abandon it. They may ease some rules for women, allowing them a bit of freedom, but a total rejection of the headscarf would never be allowed by the Mullahs’ regime, despite the best intentions of any solidarity campaign.

It is about time to abandon wishful thinking and show respect to women like Nazi Paikidze, who dare to stand for freedom of choice. While some accept the Islamic veil, others reject it; the only way forward is to respect the right of both. Iran has a choice: it can either accept international rules, allow non-hijabi women to compete or choose not to host the championship. As for the women of Iran, they are stealthy fighters. One day they will prevail___ and it won’t be because some western women showed solidarity by wearing a hijab.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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