Did women chess players’ wearing of the hijab help Iranian women? A reader weighs in

The Women’s World Chess Championship is underway in Iran, and, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, the country (and the World Chess Federation) is requiring that all women wear hijabs. This is not only an infringement on women’s freedom (both the foreign players and the Iranians themselves), but I can imagine that playing in a hijab could be an annoyance if you’ve never worn one before.

In response to World Chess Federation’s (FIDE’s) refusal to contest the hijab requirement, several important players have pulled out of the tournament, most notably U.S. champion Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, who simply refused to wear the covering because she saw it as a symbol of women’s oppression.

Reader Will G., whose words were previously posted in a piece on the Women’s World Champion, took the time to write me an email discussing whether forcing women players to wear hijabs actually advanced the cause of Iranian women, as some people maintained. It appears that it didn’t. I am publishing his email with permission, and note that Will is himself an accomplished amateur chess enthusiast, ranking in the upper 5% of players, so he knows something about the game. And now to his email:

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Sibling Teen Chess Masters Banned In Iran For Going Unveiled and Playing An Israeli

Yeah, so that change.org petition to FIDE about moving the Women’s championship from Tehran had the expected effect. It’s good that so many people made themselves known (17,000+ signed!), but the train went a-rolling along anyway. Right now, we’ve reached the quarterfinals in Tehran. (Just look at the pics. Is there anything more depressing outside of war zone photojournalism?)

Remember some of the arguments made for why the free women of the chess world should swallow their pride and play in Iran?:

“It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”

“I am firmly against the international community using the compulsory hijab as a means to put pressure and isolate Iran.”

“If Iran can host this event, it will be a big step for us; it will help our women chess players and it will boost women in other sporting fields. It will pave the way for them, too.”

“Calls for a boycott will only disappoint Iranian women and destroy their hopes.”

So, now that some of the strongest female players have shown up and shown they can fianchetto with the best of them, things are looking up for women in Iran right? At least, the ones who play chess?

Golnaz Esfandiari of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty writes:

The Iranian National Chess Team dismissed 18-year-old Dorsa Derakhshani for appearing at the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival 2017, which ran from January 23 to February 2, without the Islamic head scarf that became compulsory in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Her 15-year-old brother, Borna Derakhshani, was banned for playing against an Israeli opponent at the same event. . . 

“Unfortunately, what shouldn’t have happened has happened. Our national interests have priority over everything,” [Iranian Chess Federation Head Mehrdad] Pahlevanzadeh said. He added that there would be no “leniency” for those who trample on Iran’s “ideals and principles.”

“Our national interests have priority over everything. . . ” In these days when a stubby-fingered Caligula occupies the White House, I take solace in the fact that a totalitarian statement like this still has the power to shock me.

Here’s a video of the offending temptress, doing her wicked post-match interview after holding International Grandmaster Damian Lemos to a draw, in a disgraceful attempt to undermine the Islamic State of Iran’s good reputation.

And here’s the offending game her little brother played against an Israeli Grandmaster. To an onlooker, it looks like a painfully dull French defense exchange variation with a significant blunder in a probably drawn endgame (85. g3??), but apparently the real blunder was showing up like some kind of competitor and not feigning illness.

So I ask the pious folk quoted in The Guardian, and everyone who thinks they may have a point: What the hell is wrong with you? How many women’s championships will have to be held in Iran before the misogyny and antisemitism ends? When would you say we are no longer reaching out in love and understanding, but enabling intolerance and hatred?

And finally, I think that the Derakhshani siblings should be made automatic American citizens, if they so wish.

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Happy Western chess players, advancing the cause of Iranian women (LOL):

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20 Comments

  1. Sshort
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Am i interpreting the photos correctly? It looks as if the western players are barely…. barely… covering their offending and lust-inducing hair.

    Was that a half-protest?

    • Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Probably not: apparently, Iranian authorities are less strict with foreign women.

    • Christian
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Not necessarily.
      Even in Iran women started to wear their scarves exposing more and more of their hair over the years.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted February 22, 2017 at 1:47 am | Permalink

      Would one of those round white tea-cosies which are meant to “remind one of the ever-present intangible presence of [Pick-a-god, any god. No, not that God.]” fulfill the requirements?
      Or a scarf representing the success of the Rosette spacecraft? Matt “shirt-gate” Taylor probably has a good design.

      “Our national interests have priority over everything. . . ”

      Sounds like something out of the Oval Office.

  2. Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Nice one, Will G. I understand that Ukrainian ex-world champ Marisya Muzychuk, ex-US champ Irina Krush (sister of Orange?), and Carolina Lujan, the Argentine, refused to play for the same reasons that Nazi Paikidze-Barnes gave.

    Most players are nervous wrecks when playing (at least I am): they need to be comfortable. How are you supposed to concentrate when worrying about a piece of material slipping off your head?

    Oh, by the way. 1. d4 and I resign. You’re top 5%? I think ‘resigns’ is strongest.

    • Larry Smith
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Interestingly, Marisya’s sister Anna decided to play in this event, and has now advanced to the final four.

    • Will G
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Heh, I tried to play down my expertise. I am in the top 5% of American rated players currently, but those rolls are swollen by elementary school kids who play a few scholastic events and then give the game up. My internet chess record will demonstrate my vulnerability. The Derakshanis are leagues better than I am.

  3. Larry Smith
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    First of all, I supported Nazi Paikidze-Barnes’ decision to not play in this event, and I signed her petition. I was also glad to see several other strong players/countries not attend as well, though I don’t know how many of those non-attendees did so on principle.

    It’s lousy to hear that the Derakhshani siblings are being punished for their activities in Gibraltar. However, I don’t think anyone thought that allowing Iran to proceed with their hosting of the Women’s World Championship event would result in a change of policy re: their citizens’ behavior in other countries’ events. It’s disappointing, but not unexpected.

    More to the point, though, is whether the decision by many strong players to go ahead and play in Iran despite the hijab requirement has given Iran the sense that the West is OK with this stricture. Their actions seem to confirm this theory.

    As this event is still going on, it’s a little too soon to say whether it will ultimately advance women’s chess (or other sports) in Iran or not. Maybe – just maybe – the tepid boycott, and getting some of these discussions out in the open will ultimately be beneficial. However, at this point in time, it does seem to me that while it would have hurt some Iranian chess players in the short term, a total boycott would have been ultimately more attention-grabbing and thus more helpful in the long run.

    • eric
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      As this event is still going on, it’s a little too soon to say whether it will ultimately advance women’s chess (or other sports) in Iran or not

      It probably depends on what your goal was. If your goal was “more Iranian women permitted by their husbands and families to play chess,” then maybe it helped. However if your goal was “more Iranian women thought of as the moral and social equals to men because they play chess,” then probably not. The Iranian government very effectively split away any womens’ lib sort of lesson from the tournament. Which I think was part of Will G.’s point.

  4. Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Had the foreign women been free not to wear hijabs, but donned them anyway in solidarity with their Iranian sisters, they would have made a powerful statement for freedom. But since the foreign women were required to wear hijabs, the only statement is their acquiescence to oppression.

    • Christian
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if it really has to be a hijab or a scarf as long as the hair is covered.
      At least as a western woman I’d try to wear some silly hat, maybe even with a slack-jawed “Stoopid Mullah”-head on top.

  5. Will G
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Jerry. Again, I’m honored to contribute.

    So I found this interview with Dorsa Derakshani in Beyond Chess. One gets the picture from her that the Iranian Chess Federation provides more strictures than guidance for developing players, but she says, concerning the mandatory hijab for foreign women players:

    I don’t think it’s a practical issue by any means. In fact, I was once wore a formal sort of hijab (we have different ones depending on the occasion) that was seriously disturbing me as it was bound too strong. On the other hand, in Iran people know and accept that foreigners are neither familiar (nor particularly willing) to wear a hijab so it’s ok to just use a scarf and cover your hair in some way. As for the second aspect mentioned, you can just leave the door open a tiny bit and everything is fine. I’m definitely not conservative in this issue but I think we shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it. Those who really oppose these measures for political reasons are free to stay away. This really doesn’t help anybody and would truly be a pity for the event itself!

    I don’t get the impression of a dissident firebrand here, just someone who wanted to let her hair down for a tournament in another country. After all, she’d done it before, and as a student in Spain, that’s probably her style.

    I hate to bring her down further, but this “It’s no big deal, just wear the damn thing or don’t play here” is a false choice. It’s coercion. Same as what’s happened here. She and her brother “chose” not to behave in ways consistent with the Islamic Republic’s dictates, so they’ve “chosen” to never again play in or for their country.

  6. Nilou Ataie
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    From now on, when visiting the states, all men athletes from Iran will wear speedos and half shirts to show respect for our culture. Waxing is strongly suggested.

  7. Cate Plys
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I can barely stand to think about this. The fact that this travesty occurred with hardly any coverage here in the U.S. — a couple of initial stories, then nothing, no follow up, no outrage–is the most horrific part. Were any group but women being discriminated against, this would not stand.Except maybe atheists, of course.

    Thank you for continuing to cover this Jerry! The most ridiculous part about the double standards on women’s oppression is that when women bring it up, it looks like whining. And we know it. So half the time women shut up about it, in order to be considered “reasonable”. It is SO important for men to be vocal about this.

  8. Larry Smith
    Posted February 22, 2017 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    For additional information about this incident from a well-respected chess news source, plus unanimously supportive comments from their readers, please see: http://en.chessbase.com/post/iran-bans-teenage-chessplayers-for-harming-national-interests

  9. Mark Joseph
    Posted February 22, 2017 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    I think that the next time the Iranians (or any of their co-religionists) come here for a tournament, the organizers should serve bacon cheeseburgers, the sine qua non of American culture.

  10. Mike
    Posted February 23, 2017 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    The Odious Marie Le Pen told em to stuff the Hijab,when asked to wear one to meet the Grand Mufti, “the Grand purveyor of bull shit.” anyway, good for her, I never thought I would say that about Ms Le Pen.

  11. Brian Davis
    Posted February 23, 2017 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Why is there a separate tournament for women? I understand having separate leagues for men and women in strength based competitions, but why in chess? Do they use lighter pieces? A smaller board?


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