The American chess champion challenging Iran’s hijab fetish

Last week, FIDE, the international chess federation, quietly announced that Iran would host next year’s Women’s World Chess Championship, which means contestants will have to cover their hair with scarves to comply with a “modesty” law fundamentalist clerics put in place after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

As British Grandmaster Nigel Short spread the news, expressing concern, the 2016 U.S. champion, Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, a Georgian American, made a morally courageous move: Paikidze said she would skip the competition rather than comply with a law that denies women and girls fundamental human rights.

“I will NOT wear a hijab and support women’s oppression. Even if it means missing one of the most important competitions of my career ”, the chess champion said.

To us, Paikidze should not have to boycott the tournament, which an Iranian Woman Grandmaster said would hurt the progress of women’s chess in the country. Instead, Iran should respect her choice, make the headscarf optional and lift its ban on women who choose not to cover their hair.

Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, the 2016 U.S. women’s chess champion. (Photo by Spectrum Studios)
Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, the 2016 U.S. women’s chess champion. (Photo by Spectrum Studios)

The 22-year-old U.S. chess champion’s sincere protest is a remarkable checkmate to the government of Iran and other fundamentalist elements in our Muslim societies, who peddle “hijab” as a virtual sixth pillar of Islam for women. It also raises fresh scrutiny about a chess federation already under fire for corruption. Last November, the Treasury Department sanctioned FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a Russian businessman, for “materially assisting” and representing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

In a countermove, Susan Polgar, the Hungarian-born American chair of FIDE’s Commission for Women’s Chess, said she has “respect” for “cultural differences”, even noting the “beautiful choices” of scarves Iranian organizers provided women in the past.

Thank you, but no, thank you.

While American liberals call out the “slut shaming” of beauty queen Alicia Machado, they too often sacrifice their values and stay silent on the idea of the hijab. Paikidze’s protest is a welcome departure from politicians, journalists, nonprofit leaders and fashion designers who express, for lack of a better word, a hijab fetish, which romanticizes and normalizes the hijab. Indeed, hijab fetishists are like pawns for the clerics, blinded to the fact that the hijab is a symbol of sexism, misogyny and purity culture.

This week, Paikidze posted a petition to FIDE that has been winning new signatories every few minutes. On Instagram, she wrote “a message to the people of Iran”, expressing her love for them and saying, “I stand for freedom of religion and choice. I’m protesting FIDE’s decision not because of Iran’s religion or people, but for the government’s laws that are restricting my rights as a woman”.

In our struggle for the soul of Islam, this young chess champion’s courage emboldens us, because like-minded liberals too often stay silent, afraid of being called “Islamophobic” or intolerant of “diversity”. Too many liberals accept discrimination in the name of Islam, leaving reform-minded Muslims and others hanging.

The idea of the hijab hinges on the false premise that women’s and girls’ hair is part of our sexual being and must be covered to protect our honor and chastity and shield “weak” men and boys from temptation. But as journalist Hala Arafa, an Egyptian American, has analyzed, “hijab” or a derivative of the word appears only eight times in the Koran and never in reference to head covering.

Compulsory hijab is not part of our culture. Yet women are criminals in Iran if they remove their headscarves to feel the wind in their hair. Forcing women to cover their hair imposes a false identity on us. For years, a battery of Iranian clerics had the advantage of the bully pulpit, boasting that women embraced the hijab, but, since the launch of the #MyStealthyFreedom campaign, thousands of women have posted selfies without headscarves, showing the emptiness of the mullahs’ claim.

As many liberals and Muslims shiver at the idea of a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Iran is banning women such as Paikidze who don’t believe in covering their hair. She won the right to compete in a world championship that Iran won the right to host. In the spirit of a history that welcomed seafarers, spice traders, merchants and orphans through the span of the Persian Empire, Iran has a choice on its next move: continue its ban or host a world championship that accepts a young chess champion from America, as she is, brilliant, dynamic, collegial — and scarf-less.

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement. Masih Alinejad is a journalist for the Voice of America Persian service and founder of My Stealthy Freedom, a campaign to oppose compulsory headscarves in Iran.

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