Tag Archives: Civil Society

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.

Check.

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.

Checkmate.

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Digital Governance

On a june weekend I took part in a class workshop lead by TechChange, an organization that is dedicated to utilizing information and communication technology for positive social change. The workshop familiarized students, including myself, with various technological tools that are currently being used to support various weakened institutions around the world, such as crisis response & management, health response, education, and governance to name a few.

Two technological tools that we got to acquire hands on experience was FrontlineSMS and CrowdMap, which helped facilitate communication and information during election monitoring and medical emergency simulations. The tools utilize SMS (text messaging) – the predominant source of communication in even the most remote and/or underdeveloped regions of the world – and leveraging them to aid in some kind of monitoring or crisis management capacity.

Aside from monitoring tools, new innovative uses of ICT technology are helping to leverage and/or support governance in regions where it has been primarily absent. Tools like FrontlineSMS:Legal and the Internet Bar Organization’s Internet Silk Road Initiative help extend the reach of formal state legal institutions to the remotest of areas. This is particularly useful in places like the remote mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan’s northwest frontier where formal state penetration is limited. When disputes arise, citizens residing in these areas can call or text their dispute to a legal authority connected to this “mlegal” technology, which can help facilitate various legal needs such as discovery, facilitation, or representation just to name a few. Furthermore, these projects can also work with informal justice systems that may have greater legitimacy in a region. In the case of Afghanistan, working with Jirgas can provide greater legitimacy, collaboration, and enforcement on legal decisions made by formal and informal judges and juries.

However, questions do arise on how one monitors and maintains the enforcement of decisions made on legal disputes. In remote regions, monitoring is very difficult and having adequate witnesses may pose a problem in remote locations. In the case of Afghanistan, if state institutions are so remote, enforcement will require greater cooperation from jirgas – a community of tribal elders that specifically addresses disputes in the community. This can pose a problem as jirgas are not monitored and may become privy to dubious dealings. In other words, there is no regulatory system or body to help maintain the jirgas honesty.

Also, the technologies that were supposed to aid and support governance seemed limited to institutions. While institutions are important, they cannot function correctly without having a strong civil society. Aisha Ghaus-Pasha presents an excellent case on the role of civil society and how it promotes “good governance like transparency, effectiveness, openness,
responsiveness, and accountability.” (page 3) Therefore, it would be very interesting to see how technology can aid in the strengthening of civil society and create better relations and cooperation between civil society and formal state institutions.

The overall experience of being part of the TechChange workshop was quite eye-opening. It brought me face-to-face to many technologies that are simply daring to create change. Obviously, technology is not the answer to social woes and the organization makes no case that it does. However, they do argue that technology can certainly help and that it is simply daring to create positive social change as best it can through feedback and trial and error.

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