Category Archives: Middle East

Checking Outrage: A Chess Strategy to Change Iran

Last week, a Georgian-American chess world champion, Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, went on social media to express her disapproval and subsequent boycott of the 2017 Chess World Championship that is to take place in Iran on the grounds of Iran’s religious law that would require her to wear a hijab. As she posted on her Instagram:

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.

It is difficult not to have a knee-jerk reaction and jump on the Paikidze-Barnes bandwagon, and fully support her boycott. After all, it is true, women are treated as second-class citizens in Iran from the policing of their dress by the state, their ban to attend male sporting events in Iran, to inheritance and custody laws just to name a few. However, in light of the position, many Iranian women have taken to news outlets and blogs to express their concern and disapproval of Nazi’s stance. They argue that boycotting such a major competition actually hurts progress for Iranian women. As one Iranian international master put it:

This campaign against the tournament is against Iranian women and it doesn’t help at all…It’s the first time we are hosting a world championship [for women], 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.

In a New York Times op-ed, Azadeh Moaveni asked Jila Baniyaghoob, a journalist and activist in Iran who had spent some time in prison, on the matter:

[S]he said it was crucial to take the long view…While she herself opposes mandatory hijab, she points to the athletic wear Iranian female athletes wore in the 2016 Olympic Games, outfits that 30 years ago would have been inconceivable. “Women’s progress goes step by step here, and the route forward isn’t a boycott,” she said. “When a woman shines in a sports competition it boosts women’s rights in all areas, it reverberates everywhere, beyond those games.”

In Ms. Baniyaghoob’s words is where we find the strategic nougat of women’s rights and progress in Iran. The strategy of showcasing talent and championing the abilities of women on the international stage not only benefits women in Iran, but benefits the entire country as a whole.

In chess, it is important to not become distracted by nonsense movements of an opponent or easy attacks that can put your overall strategy out of position. Fighting Iran’s mandatory hijab dress code for women seems like a valiant, immediate crusade (indeed, it is). It is visual. It directly attacks a nonsense law that imposes the state’s will on women (although, nobody in the West seems to care too much about the mandatory dress code for men). And it “feels” like it is the right course of action to make a backward system backpedal.


However, the reality is that overt protests from Western media and public figures does little to progress women’s rights in Iran. In fact, it is often used as a pretense to crackdown on Iranian women’s rights activists that fight day-in and day-out in schools, courts, mosques, stadiums, streets, gyms, and even across the chess board. Therefore, when Western fanfare over “Iranian oppression of women” rears its head into mainstream media, it often does more harm than good. This is why Iranian women urge for a different strategy: worry less about the attire for now, and focus more on empowering Iranian women by participating with them in sport on the world stage.

Iranian women are taking the approach of showcasing their talent and abilities – both domestically and internationally; no matter how small the event – as the means to gain support and empower their voices when fighting against laws that oppress them. By entering the halls of Iranian sport  champions and heroes, Iranian women gain greater leverage through their newfound status of Iranian heroes to fight oppression. Therefore, when that ability to showcase their ability is marred or covered by tabloid like media coverage, it takes away the very achievements that Iranian women are fighting for every day.

It is important to remain resolute in the long approach of Iranian progress. The long approach, in this case, meaning Iranian women showcasing their ability on the world’s stage and being international contenders in every world competition that is available to them. With each success, the country increasingly rallies behind Iranian women to succeed and, through this increased support, a culture of championing Iranian women is erected and widely accepted.  This also has a trickling affect into other areas of Iranian society whether in employment, politics, or other areas in which Iranian women are currently shut out. Iranian women understand this nuance and urge their Western counterparts to come halfway by keeping this long term strategy in mind. When enough opportunities are won and they outnumber the men in key positions (which they will), the veil will come off; at which point it is no longer a symbol of oppression, but just a simple headscarf. It’s only a matter of time.


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It Gets Emotional

During the election hubub that has gripped the attention of the American people, a few stories have emerged in the DC area in the last couple weeks that have stayed with me. The first story is the posting of anti-Muslim ads on DC Metrorail systems that have sparked an outcry from civil and religious groups about it promoting hate speech. However, there’s little debate that it shouldn’t be protected and rightfully so, for while it does foment hate, it clearly falls within the guidelines of the First Amendment. Therefore, a concurrent ad campaign has been waged by various Jewish and Christian organizations that either condemn the hate-speech ads or promote inclusivity.

As I have followed the story through listening to NPR, one particular segment (regarding the issue) caught my attention. NPR was interviewing a Jewish Rabbi that had condemned the anti-Muslim ads and had contributed to the ad campaign against bigotry when a woman intervened (or interjected) during the interview. A debate ensued between the two with the woman arguing that people of the Muslim world do not respect the same “values and freedoms” as those in the West and, as a result, should not be respected or tolerated. After the Rabbi made his rebuttal that her beliefs are not grou, the woman brought up the story about the 14-year-old girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating education for girls. She made the argument, how can one say that the Muslim world holds the same values of human rights and respect if they get up-in-arms regarding charicatures of the Prophet Muhammad, but not the horrible incident that almost took this little girl’s life?

I was taken aback, for that resonated with me. I did not hear of any protests condemning the attack on this young girl. Especially not from the Muslim world.

I got emotional.

I was upset with Muslim peoples committing acts of violence because someone drew Muhammad, but barely cried out against the violence toward this young girl (and all other girls who desire education). I had not heard of any protests against the Taliban on my regular news outlets – CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, France 24, NPR, Times, Newsweek, Guardian, or any other English language news outlet – so what the woman was saying must have been true. I wanted to lambast my Muslim friends for being part of a religion that allowed such hypocrisy to exist. I saw some political cartoons that satirized the situation of the Taliban fearing little girls getting educated, and felt that it embodied the true nature of patriarchical Islam.

I was being swayed to loathe Islam and Muslim peoples.

And as suddenly as I started to embrace bigotry a certain switch got flipped within me. I thought to myself, there must be more to this story. Did Muslims actually not protest? I sat down in front of my computer and did a simple google search. Lo and behold, I was proven wrong from just 5 minutes of searching. Thousands came out to protest against the attack with the Pakistani people demanding the government to take action. Vigils not only took place in Pakistan, but in neighboring Afghanistan and India as well.

It should come to no surprise that U.S./English-speaking-media did not cover such protests, but I still remain dumbfounded. Even the google search yielded a handful of articles on the protests versus the thousands upon thousands that covered the Taliban shooting little Malala. It makes one wonder whether media outlets actively refuse to cover such events or they simply find it unimportant to the American people.

Whatever the case, this woman in the NPR story and I share a bond. We are both individuals who feel outraged that a girl is shot for wanting an education. Such outrage is noble. But our nobility is quickly corrupted because we’re not given the whole story. Therefore, with the whole truth and little effort being made to cover (or active effort is made not to cover) the fallout, our outrage – unchecked – leads us down a dark, angry path. That path leads us to lash out with bigoted ads and/or actual physical violence on those we deem guilty by association. We add to the divide and contribute to the conflict. The cycle continues.

In the end, I was almost brainwashed with hatred. Thank goodness it was “almost”.

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“The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”

As Ben Ali and Mubarak eventually conceded to “their people” with reverberations being felt in other Arab countries, Iran swelled with courage and excitement to join in the democratic wave after its own momentum had abated since a year and a half ago. Pro-Democracy Iranians took to the streets to co-opt the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution to make their grievances heard. The diaspora flooded the various waves of technology to show support and make viral the pictures and videos that document the oppression and injustice the Iranian people are subjected to. However, while I do not like to be a “debbie downer”, the Iranian people do not face an oppressor like the one’s found in Tunisia, Egypt, or many other Arab countries in upheaval. They face something worse.

This might seem to be a “duh” thing to say, but what I want to point out is that the Iranian people are fighting a very, very different beast. Iranians face an oppressor on two fronts. One front includes the formal institutions of the Islamic Republic that include the President, the Majlis (Parliament), the Velayat-e-Faqih (Supreme Leader), Guardian Council, you know what, just see this picture here. The other front is the zealots, which include the Basij whom blend in with the general Iranian society and “tip off” authorities on opposition members and use indiscriminate violence to keep the Iranian people “in check”.

Unlike Iran, the governments of Ben Ali and Mubarak (and most of the other Arab countries) ruled their countries through a strong, organized, and vicious security apparatus. The strength of its power relied upon a swift cracking down upon dissidents and relied very little on having “popular support”. Sure it has the well-to-do, and they put up a fight as the pro-Mubarak forces did alongside the military, but they were egregiously outnumbered and have a lot more to lose should they get injured—most pro-Mubarak demonstrators/supporters hail from the upper classes of Egyptian society. Therefore, in every sense of the phrase, they did not have popular support.

Iran on the other hand has one too many experiences with “revolution”. In fact, you could say that the current Iranian regime wrote the handbook on modern revolutions. The key players that brought the Islamic government into power knew all too well that if they wanted to dethrone the more financially and militarily powerful Shah, they would need every man, even the most mendicant. Not to say that joining forces with the poor was a novel idea, as the French have immortalized, but Islam being built on the foundation of helping the poor, encouraging an austere lifestyle, and equality before God regardless of class produced a much greater symbiotic relationship that the poor could rally behind.

This relationship not only brought the Islamic government into power, but it has maintained their power through the Basij–a volunteer paramilitary organization used to intimidate, abuse, and rape dissidents, with their downtime hobbies including study of the Qur’an and various recreational activities like soccer, cards, and slapping each other in the face.

The Basij are primarily comprised of the poorer demographics of Iranian society, where many of them receive financial support and health services through membership (akin to how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt operates). I want to clarify by saying that all those who are poor are NOT Basij, for many who are poor are on the side of the opposition. Instead, those who are members and receive benefits from the system find they have a lot to lose if the Islamic regime were to go. Their very identity lies with the organization, the Islamic Republic, which results in them laying their lives down for the Supreme Leader.

This is not to say that the Iranian people don’t stand a chance. They will emancipate themselves for the regime cannot sustain its current discourse not only politically and socially, but also economically. Yet, I believe that “emancipation” will come at the heavy price of going through years of protracted conflict. While the demonstrations after the 2009 presidential election were nonviolent and peaceful (on the opposition’s side of course), this time around the opposition is fighting back. As the government further cracks down on the opposition, it systematically radicalizes the opposition to take more extreme and potentially violent means in acquiring their rights. You add that to the resolve of the Iranian regime and the Basij who readily accept martyrdom, the conflict can escalate into something that would make Francisco Franco nostalgic.

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