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.