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.

Gender activism: within the system or without?

wadudAt times, I hear some Muslim women scholars sniff at activism. I hear people say that the activists who educate young women in conservative seminaries and teach them wifely obedience are superior to such scholarly activists who rock the boat, jettison baggage, and demand new gendered frameworks. I hear people say that such activists could have continued to be highly regarded scholars in “mainstream” religious circles, and that it was their own fault that they demanded too much, made too many big statements, and demanded – for instance – prayer leadership, the right to divorce, and so on.

This is an age-old debate of course: work within the system and slowly accomplish some goals, impact a large number of stakeholders, and slowly achieve change? Or demand more, and turn large numbers of mainstream community members against yourself – and potentially get them to dig in their heels even further?

I disagree with such claims – that working within the status quo is the only true path to reform. With all respect to warriors on the path, quiet, patient work within the system is one of the paths. We need all our warriors on this path. Scholar-activists like Amina Wadud have blazed a path for all of us. Whether you agree with her or disagree, she helped raise everyone’s expectations. For my part, whether you find your spiritual home within the status quo or not, if you work toward egalitarian ideals, we are all sisters & brothers.

But even if I love your community service, be warned, some of us wage war against the status quo.

HIJAB? AGAIN?

I didn’t bother to read Nomani’s Washington Post piece. Judging by the title, I assumed it (as my brilliant student @zaynabshahar put it) “deconstructed hijab solidarity as a rising trend” and critiqued the commodification and consumption of hijab. It didn’t do that. Asra Nomani says we have to fight hijab, and abandon hijab solidarity practices. Why? Because some women are forced to wear headcovers.

It is true that some women are forced to wear particular types of clothing. (Some people, who remain unnamed, have sensory issues and are forced to wear fitted suits and uncomfortable shoes). Some women in Muslim settings are forced to wear headcovers. Does this mean hijab is always an oppressive force?

Nomani’s argument is flawed. If some women are forced into marriage, do we call for a solidarity boycott of marriage? The freedom to practice is essential, but hijab itself doesn’t create mandatory headcover practices and associated shaming.

Some choose to practice it, others don’t. I do not. Many of my friends do. I support all of them. I talk about pluralism of practice within Muslim communities in my book, and I talk about how some imams, some scholars, and some writers throw dynamite into this pluralism, pitting hijab-wearers against non-hijab wearers.

All these discussions of hijab are so old & done. Seriously: did we just roll back to the 80s and 90s? Wear it or not. And now, instead of discursively attacking women with headcovers, or attacking visibly Muslim people in the street or the school playground, let’s move on to attacking and dismantling racism, oppression, poverty, hunger, genocide, and exploitation.

And here is an important reminder to avoid essentializing & distilling Muslim identity, difference, & courage in the form only of a headscarf:

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#JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux

frenchI awoke to the hashtag  #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux because a 15-year old French Muslim student was sent home for her long black skirt. Apparently her skirt proclaimed her religious affiliation too “loudly.”

The Twittersphere wants to know if Elsa is Muslim and why do Cinderella and Ariel get away with their long skirts, when a Muslim girl infects a long skirt with Muslimness? Since when does feminist empowerment demand controlling female bodies and their clothes?

At the end of the day, France – as in the Charlie Hebdo affair – falls prey to racism. They think we can’t see the silhouette of Islamophobia through their sheer laicite, but everyone else knows the emperor is naked.

Oh, France! we all cry out.

But Americans need not jump to judgement too fast. In Muslim American Women on Campus, I discuss how even non-hijab-wearing U.S. Muslim college women were othered for such attempts at modest clothing as long sleeves and long skirts. See below: 

 


An excerpt from Chapter 4: “You Can’t Really Look Normal and Dress Modestly: Muslim Women and Their Clothes on Campus” follows:  

Religiously observant non-hijabis typically seek a midpoint between normal American and Muslim dress: this usually involves wearing no hijab; modest necklines, long sleeves, and long pants to cover skin; and clothes of a loose fit to cover one’s bodily contours. Stylish layers such as jackets were in common usage to cover the chest and buttocks, but also to counteract the single baggy layer appearance. Hijab certainly is not the measure of modesty or dowdiness. As the trends of “hijab chic” and “sexy hijab” have grown in popularity, I have observed, on the one hand, hijabis wearing daringly skin-tight jeans and shirts, even low-cut necklines, coupled with minimalist headscarves, and non-hijabis, on the other hand, wearing loose clothes and bulky hoodies.

But even non-hijabis who wore modest “American” dress could not escape othering. It was no surprise that for Heather, a recent convert, “the biggest thing”—the greatest challenge—was her Muslim wardrobe.

Heather: Because you can’t really look normal and dress modestly. . . . You can pull it off to some degree. But you’ll never—[trails off]. . . . There are definite barriers between being religious and being normal in society. And you can make up to a certain degree with personality or knowledge of popular culture—or being interested in having a fun time that’s not necessarily haraam or something, but—[trails off].

[…]

On a summer day, Heather stood among her peers in their short skirts and lacy tank tops. In a woven long-sleeved shirt and an ankle-length Gap denim skirt, Heather’s skin was conspicuous by its absence.

[…]

Heather tried to prevent such encounters by strategically planning outfits, though she remained dissatisfied with the partial conformity that resulted.

peasantHeather: And so, definitely this summer I’m a lot more inclined to wear, like, light-looking things or things that might fit in a little more—like, skirts that don’t look like they’re hot, or pants that just look like khakis. Because you can sort of get away with wearing khakis in the summer and nobody’s going to ask you “Are you hot?” for the most part. Because at least you’re like–you know, it’s a legitimate thing to wear. The problem is when people wear long skirts or long pants they normally wear, like, a tank top on top.

Heather could “get away with” khakis and long skirts but when not paired with tank tops, this alternative to skin-baring summer fashion marked her as hot, weird, and oppressed. With her modest attire, Heather would never be perfectly normal or free from the pressure to defend her clothing choices.

Home movies that destroy lives

While interviewing Pakistani women academics in 2012, I learned how technological advances offer freedoms as well as snares for women. My research participant “Tahira” told me how some Pakistani young women are lured by secret lovers into making  amateur “sex films,” but these men then proceed to share these films publicly on the internet. Reputations, lives, and families are ruined in the process.

There are, however, relatively innocent films that are posted publicly and cause similar devastation in conservative families.

I know that for many, the solution is for young women to do absolutely nothing that might bring shame upon their families. Perhaps, indeed, young women must wear chadors at all times and never get caught in a private moment where they appear erotic or attractive. I am, of course, being sarcastic.

In the unregulated jungles of the internet, there does not appear to be any available strategy that might protect people from the damage of being caught by strangers engaged in fun that does no one (else) any harm.

But perhaps, in our families, schools, colleges, and madrassahs, young men can be educated to think and speak of women with respect, as agents and not as objects, as persons who can speak and act, and not as things that can only be seen and spoken of. Muslim religiosity and conservative cultural norms certainly contain the seeds of compassion, humility, and understanding of human sexuality, complexity, and diversity. It’s time those seeds bear fruit.