Veiled politics in Women’s Chess

Women, clothes, and politics. Here we are again.

You can trust the news cycle to keep recycling women’s bodies in new garb every other day.

The Fédération Internationale des Échecs awarded Iran the opportunity to host the Women’s World Chess Championship in 2017. Women in Iran are legally required to wear hijab. Uh-oh.

Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, the 2016 US Women’s Chess champion, refuses to compete in the Women’s World Championship in Iran. She states: “I think it’s unacceptable to host _91524161_nazi.jpga women’s World Championship in a place [Iran] where women do not have basic fundamental rights and are treated as second-class citizens.”

Among other things, Iran’s recent 112-day imprisonment of Canadian anthropologist Prof. Homa Hoodfar certainly lends strength to the argument against its record of gender rights.

Here’s an irrelevant question though: If a dark-skinned non-blonde chess champion from a non-US country were to refuse to wear hijab and play in Iran, would the media cover it so assiduously, and with so many shots of the photogenic 22-year old?

humpy05.jpgHumpy Koneru, an Indian chess grandmaster, disagrees with such boycotts. She says of playing chess in Iran, “For a few days it was a bit awkward to play with the headscarf, but slowly I got used to it. I feel we need to respect their culture and customs.”

Koneru points to something that is universal. Not headscarves, but clothing norms: we’ve all got them, and most of us feel pretty strongly about them. Most of us also really hate other people’s norms.

I don’t approve of enforcing hijab on women.

I also know, as an anthropologist, that culture, everywhere – Iran, the US, Pakistan, France – isn’t all about freedom and agency. We are socialized into cultural norms, including ideas of what is the appropriate, good, attractive way to dress, and at times, we are disciplined for transgressions against dominant norms.

By the way, I also seem to recall the 2011 FIFA ban on the athletic attire of the Iranian women’s soccer team, which made it impossible for these women to play. So that wasn’t exactly all about freedom either, but no one seemed to care much about that career-killing move.

The fact that Olympic women athletes are often obligated to dress like showgirls isn’t all about freedom and agency either. A box is created for them, culturally, and if they want to compete in synchronized swimming or other “Pretty Sports,” they buckle up, and do it (Monica Hesse, 8/10/2016).

Yep. That’s not fair either.

But is it more unfair to be required to wear a headscarf to compete in chess in Iran than it is to be refused the right to wear a headscarf to compete in sports? I guess your response depends on how you feel about the hijab.

Nazi Paikidze-Barnes and others read women’s oppression in the hijab. Insofar as it is enforced, it is indeed oppressive. But the chess champion interprets the status of Iranian women as wrapped, so to speak, in the hijab; if the Iranian government did not require participants to wear hijab to the tournament, would the second-class status of Iranian women no longer distress Paikidze-Barnes? Or is it the act of donning a head-cover that Paikidze-Barnes sees as an acceptance of inferiority?

Questions, questions.
1200.jpgMitra Hejazipour, an Iranian woman grandmaster is not happy with this refusal. “This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen; we haven’t been able to host any world championship in other sporting fields for women in the past. 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.”

Drawing attention toward her own body and her refusal to wear hijab, Paikidze-Barnes perhaps unwittingly eclipses by her own agenda the hard-earned opportunities and possibilities of her Iranian sisters.

Azadeh Moaveni writes in the New York Times today that women’s ongoing struggles for opportunities and freedom in Iran are at risk “if outsiders with their own agendas inflame the issue.” If you recall, the letter-writing campaign against the stoning of Amina Lawal in Nigeria suffered from the same problematic assumption: that we Westerners must sally forth to rescue oppressed women from their awful lives and funny-looking outfits. The brilliant 2003 Counterpunch piece “How Not to Help Amina Lawal” should be required reading for all those outraged by the cultural excesses of Muslim peoples. Ayesha Iman and Sindi Medar-Gould draw attention to the harmful impact of reactionary external movements that do not take into account how their very inflammatory reaction may worsen the situation on the ground for women’s workers on the ground. By focusing attention on hijab, such movements risk further empowering xenophobic and reactionary elements in Iran (probably those responsible for Homa Hoodfar’s imprisonment), and drowning out the voices of women like Mitra Hejazipour whose career is an ongoing, long-standing struggle for women’s empowerment. The article also highlights the importance of respecting the expertise and knowledge of local activists, instead of foisting one’s own preoccupations upon them.

Moaveni says: “Iranian women’s rights activists worry that anti-hijab protests, which flared up in Europe recently over the French burkini ban, are now being aimed at Iran. The West’s preoccupation with the veil and the growing popularity of simply being “anti-hijab” as an existential and political position muddles too many things.”

The headscarf and burqa symbolize patriarchy to many observers. The uncomfortable G-string does not. The burkini is bad. The bikini is good. Long skirts are bad. Stilettos are good. Miss Universe is good. Iranian chess tournaments are bad.

Binaries, binaries.

Here’s a weird idea though. Maybe the governments and sporting authorities in Iran, France, the US, everybody can back off of women’s bodies and women’s various forms of clothing. Maybe demonizing hijab isn’t exactly sisterly. Maybe infantilizing women and reading hijab as a pure imposition is – well, infantilizing. Maybe, until we’ve properly dismantled the patriarchy, we can start seeing it wheresoever we turn, rather than in Them alone.

3 thoughts on “Veiled politics in Women’s Chess”

  1. Pingback: - altM
    1. I found your blog after searching and trying to better understand all the controversy surrounding headscarves and Muslim women. I’m very pleased to have found blog and other written works. You bring attention to the fact this is a complex issue (which I knew it had to be with all the controversy). I don’t like the idea of women being forced to cover themselves, however, I do understand the desire to be out of the male gaze. Certainly, I believe that women should be liberated to wear a head scarf or not without it being an issue, and frankly– I’ve never thought of it as an issue, but tension has been rising and I heard about the Iranian chess competition and didn’t know how to feel. I also came across your article about the burquini ban and being an individual that cannot wear a regular swimsuit on the beach (I have a disease that makes me so photosensitive I have to wear full body swimwear– and full body SPF clothing on a daily basis for that matter) and I can’t say that the looks I get from other people are much better than falling under the dissecting gaze of a man when I wear shirt that may show my collar bones, or a shade rep stain a little too red. It certainly feels like a damned-if-you-do, and damned-if-you-don’t situation.

      You’re posts intrigue me. They speak to me. I’m not Muslim, but I’m I grew up Catholic, surrounded by fundamentalists Christians who constantly prodded at me for praying to a women (Mary or my confirmation saint Brigid) and calling me an sinner for worshipping other, numerous “false gods” (saints). I never brought up my faith, but I wore Brigid’s cross and eventually, I just stopped wearing it altogether to avoid conversation (the exceptionally undereducated thought the cross marked me as a Nazi). In a country that prides itself for diversity, we spend a great deal of time using our differences against each other to justify one flawed system as simply less flawed than the opposition.

      I appreciate your honest commentary, and how well you can articulate that this is more than just headscarves, burquinis, or G-strings, but it’s about patriarchy. It’s about the men that make these rules (regardless of the religion, place or context– cover or wear as little as possible) and get passes when they break their own rules. Thank you for writing.

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