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.

Shadowlake Village – cooperative housing in Blacksburg, VA

meThis winter break, we invited ourselves over to the home of our dear friends, Javed “Hijabman” Memon and Aida Rahim. We’ve also been very interested in exploring their cooperative housing setup, called Shadowlake Village. So here are some pictures and descriptions of the place. I haven’t shared pictures of Javed and Aida’s home – which is beautiful and amazingly well-designed, but I am profoundly inspired by the concept of cooperative housing.

playgroundConsider some examples: When our kid wants to play outside, it’s a production. One of us grownups must accompany her to a playground, or bookstore, or library. In Shadowlake Village, Javed and Aida know all their neighbors. What do they do? They tell their kid, “Go outside and play.” They know all the other kids. They know the older neighbors whose windows look upon the playground, and who have at times hurried down to the playground to help a kid who’s hanging from the bars.

homesJaved and Aida need not own a lawn-mower. A lawnmower is a shared piece of equipment. They eat together at the club-house two nights a week. It’s not mandatory, but it’s amazing. Two nights a week, they don’t have to plan or shop for dinner. That is heaven.

clubshareHere’s the club house. It can be reserved for special parties (like Eid or Christmas dinners).

There is a large, very pretty dining area, adjoining a meeting area.meeting

Next to the dining area is an impressive industrial kitchen, complete with industrial cooking area and industrial dishwasher.











Next to the dining area is a cozy library where you can check out books, and people who work from home can work or have meetings.

playroomAnd of course there is a cute little playroom for the children.


What Javed gets really excited about is the volunteer sign-up sheet and the workshare. Everyone signs up for tasks and duties, and gets things done around the village.







game room

In the basement, there is a game room with pool tables, table tennis, foosball, air hockey, and exercise equipment.

I had the good fortune of bumping into his neighbor, Donna, who was one of the first residents and founders of Shadowlake Village. We had a most informative chat. The basement includes a wall that records the history of Shadowlake Village.





lettuceJaved is czar of the agricultural area, and this is where he shines. He grows a variety of vegetables, and orders unusual seeds for the garden, such as red and burgundy okra.


There is quite a bit of open land. There may be goats here soon. me & Javedgrounds





Javed’s yard features a pond (with frogs and fishes) and a bee-hive (he has trained to become a bee-keeper – those box-like stacks are the hives).



Philosophically and politically, the concept of cooperative housing is extremely attractive to me. I recommend you check out your local cooperative housing and consider it for yourself. Shadowlake Village may have some available homes at this time.

Montgomery County’s strategic plan to vanish Christmas, Yom Kippur, AND Muslims

Shocking news in the land of the free. In order to avoid giving students Eid-al-Adha off, Montgomery County struck Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah from the calendar. Now school will still be closed and students can observe their holidays, but the NAMES of the holidays won’t be there.

In other words, dominant religions now become invisible: yet in their invisibility, they remain dominant and invulnerable and leak into the lives of all. By making them vanish, Montgomery County schools deprive Muslims and others of the argument for equal treatment. Montgomery County: I would have expected better. 

“Board member Michael A. Durso (District 5) was the sole vote against the calendar change. During the board’s discussion, he noted that Montgomery brags about its diversity and its embrace of different cultures.”

Yes, clearly. “Embrace” should mean “containment”.

“Zainab Chaudry, also a co-chair of the coalition, expressed dismay, too, contending the school board’s members were willing to “go so far as to paint themselves as the Grinch who stole Christmas” to avoid granting equal treatment for the Muslim holiday.

“They would remove the Christian holidays and they would remove the Jewish holidays from the calendar before they would consider adding the Muslim holiday to the calendar,” she said.”

Bonus for the haters: the internet is now aflame with Islamophobes who are blaming Muslims for taking away Christmas. Two birds with one stone. Well played, Montgomery County. Why don’t you just throw all the Muslim kids out on the street?

A journey through annual conventions of the Islamic Society of North America


imamapaloozaMany years ago (okay, in 1991), when I was not an American, and had never thought I would be an American, I was working at the International Islamic University (IIU) and I heard from a student tell of an event called the Annual Convention of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America). This dear friend of mine was a religious misfit like myself, and her mother had hoped she would find a nice, educated, liberal, upwardly mobile professional, and religious boy at ISNA. So her mother packed her off to Chicago where she attended talks by Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Jamal Badawi (she got the two of them mixed up, and told me how Jamal Badawi was amazing! Tall and Black and amazing! Okay, in the photo below, Badawi is on the LEFT.) But she met no nice badawisirajboy – probably because she wasn’t really focused on the job. A year or so later, in 1993, I met a couple of Canadian students at the IIU, young women who were on friendly terms with ISNA leaders and who had organized major events such as the protests against the Bosnian genocide. They told me more tales of ISNA. 

It crossed my mind – how completely amazing and insane would it be if I, the niqabi from Kinnaird College, could attend ISNA. Most of the people in my social class did not quite get my religiosity. As for those who did get religion, they criticized my lack of traditional gendered behavior and my love of English literature. I was so lonely as a religious woman. I felt being at ISNA would put me in a cerebral network of love and awareness. All I’d known so far was Jamaat-Islami (whence I was now an exile, because I was no longer an Islamist) where the boys tended to be conservative, macho, and more interested in power politics than religion. Then I’d known my Chishti Sabri silsila where most of the people were – well, women. Radiant, smart, and devoted women, but, mostly, upper class. In case this escaped you, dear reader, I’m not upper class. I’m barely hanging on to middle class. More on that later. 

A few years later, in 1996, as a newly arrived graduate student, I attended ISNA in Columbus. I had no money, and was kindly accommodated in the interns’ hotel room. I felt completely out of place among these very American undergraduate women who were so comfortable with each other and with their very informal cliquishness. When I spoke (in my strongMatrimonial-20141 angular British accent, completely pure of midwestern slang) about the ISNA experience, they stared at me quietly, and then turned back uncomfortably to talking about Stuff. I felt dreadfully Pakistani, so foreign, and so disappointed that I wasn’t in heaven even though I was at ISNA. And no boy had liked me yet. 

Several ISNA’s later, I am off to Detroit for ISNA 2014

It is now 21 years since I first heard of ISNA. I still have no money, but I have friends – friends I can crash with. I did eventually find a man, by the way. I didn’t meet him at ISNA, but I met him at the cousin of ISNA (AMSS, which is now NAAIMS).

isna-hallwayNow when I attend ISNA, I am overwhelmed by the crowds of uncles, aunties, sisters, brothers. I smile indulgently as I pass through the hotel lobby where young Muslims flirt and make eyes at each other. I roll my eyes at the fanfare around the arrival of celebrities – and then I try to shove my way in so I can catch a glimpse of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. I am excited to see friends I haven’t seen in years. On my way to and from lectures and events, I see friends from all over N. America. I am connected now, and I am home. As home as possible. 


Check out my Meet the Author event on SUNDAY AUG 31, SESSION 12M, 11:30 AM – 12:45 PM. Room 311AB. 

Returned from the motherland

cropped-cropped-iphone-2011-11-12-050.jpgAfter a two-week visit in Pakistan, I’m back in Champaign. I’m a little dizzy with joy from being back with Svend and our daughter, and I am also constantly wrestling the demons of grief and loss from having to say goodbye yet again to my aging parents. Last night, I went to bed grateful that I was able to sleep through the night without being awoken every alternate hour by power outages and the suffocating heat that builds up quickly in the bedroom. But I also grieved that I would not be awoken by my mother’s loving touch upon my ankles as she asked me if I wanted some mint tea and toast.

The next morning we went to the bank, thinking of all the days in Pakistan when I wondered if burglars would strike our home (they had done so 3 times before), and the fact that I had zero such feelings after arriving in the US. As I stood in line and awaited my turn behind an Indian gentleman with a tilak on his forehead (who eyed me with familiar interest, probably wondering if I was a member of the tribe), I was overwhelmed by the surroundings. How clean the floors were, how orderly and updated the furniture. How the fluorescent lights did not buzz. How dust-free every surface was. How friendly and yet casual the staff were. How equitable our interaction was despite the fact that the service was excellent and efficient. How economical and yet how pleasant the social exchange was. How we ended on jokes and pleasantries with the staff that left no marks upon us, no promise for future connection.

I emerged profoundly grateful for the lightness, the warm brightness of the air, thinking I would like to hug you, Ms. Bank Teller, for your amazing personality and kindness and efficiency. And I was simultaneously smashed in the face by the sense of contrast with the homeland. I had struggled these two weeks, again, with the constant awareness of social class; the simmering resentment, envy, desire, and need; the chaos; the very organic order that emerges from connection which is for the same reason so fragile.

And yes, I was now relieved to be back in the first world – not just the first world but America which is the lap of luxury despite my many financial and professional issues. But I was also reminded of how this shiny, bright, perfect place is a bubble, a big glistening bubble that is separated from the world, that is different from most of the world. And I am in it. I am in this bubble. I am in this Matrix. How can a person choose to live in the Matrix, Morpheus? I have chosen to live here, chosen to love this place. I am even called upon to serve as a cultural ambassador of sorts, in my own cultural origin. Is this legal? Is this appropriate? Is this sustainable?

Of course this – this global distribution of resources is deeply, shockingly inappropriate, wrong, and unsustainable. But what of my place in all of this? Is it okay for me to smugly pull my feet off the dirty floor and curl up on the cushion like a cat, and to throw my lot in with this bubble? When I travel back, a living representative of AMERICA in my standard of living, in the Luna bars, Nutella-and-go packs, easy-macs that I leave in my wake, and in my complaints of the heat, the power outages, and the disorder, do I possibly do more harm than good? Am I sharing expertise gained in the first world or am I simply scattering more acutely felt inequality?

Social class slammed into my face the moment I got off the plane when I arrived. In the hungry eyes of the porters, the wonderment of the passport control officer as she flipped through my navy passport, the dust, the fabric-wrapped suitcases marked in Urdu and coming from Jeddah, Madinah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the lower middle class expat workers, innocent of deodorant in their synthetic shalwar kameez outfits, as they compulsively pushed and shoved and struggled against the queue. The day I brought my carry-on down to the hotel breakfast, I was surrounded by officious waiters and other staff hoping that I’d tip before leaving. I was a disappointment, after having flashed a navy passport at check-out. In part, being stingy is protection against being targeted as the local generous tipper. Going to the airport bathrooms was always stressful because there’s a female janitor stationed there, whose main purpose appears to be to ask you questions about where you’re traveling, and then offer a string of invocations calling blessings, safety, and many children upon you, like an axe she is holding over you to make you pay up. The force of expectation is crushing. I didn’t have the right Pakistani cash on me. It was agonizing to me, now, to be at the center of so much expectation and so much need – absolutely justified need and justified expectation – because I wasn’t sure what to do (whom to tip, how much, whether to tip or not, whether it sets me up for trouble or not), and because I didn’t have unlimited financial reserves even though I do have a spinning carry-on, obviously American shoes, and that accent.

Mastery of English constitutes a stick that I seemed to be using, unwittingly, to clobber people over the head all the time. When I was asked a question in English, I must answer in English, but the contrast between my speech and the halting tones and stilted grammar of some interlocutors in itself, maybe, comes across as violence. I don’t know for sure. I think there is both aversion and desire, and I burned for hyper-visibility, shame, and ambivalence at being at the center of this interplay.

The whitewashed Naturalization ceremony

I checked the local newspaper for photos of the naturalization ceremony.

Guess what I found in the News-Gazette. A photo essay about a family of White South Africans and here and here. Photos of immigrants from the Czech Republic, from Russia, from Spain. In recent photos of naturalized citizens, I found one photo of a black African, and one photo of an immigrant from El Salvador.  We had immigrants from 26 nations, so no,  the room was not full of Caucasians.

Immigration? No problems here. We’re just putting more White folks in the mix.

Proud American




The big unsaid narrative buried in a naturalization is the one that is supposed to say I’m moving up, baby! When you naturalize, the question frequently in the minds of fellow Americans is, boy, just how relieved are you to be like us? How great must it be to be at the top of the world?

Naturally, we celebrated by eating at the Chinese buffet. Raihana flitted in, and chirped excitedly, “I like this place because it’s very familiar. It makes me feel safe.” The familiar is usually much safer. Except when the familiar is tied up with ransom kidnappings, bombings, and armed burglaries.

I am bitter that Pakistan has to be that place that, whenever mentioned, causes Americans’ eyebrows to be raised. “Will you be safe when you are visiting your parents?” or the more politically correct, “Oh, that’s so interesting.” When mango season rolls around, my parents tell me, they cannot enjoy a good Anwar Ratol without a heavy sigh and, “Ah-ha, my Shabana doesn’t get any of these mangoes.” When I sit in a clean, mahogany-furnished courtroom, and am courteously ushered to my seat by White people, I sigh, and think, if only my Lahore friends were able to get through the day without wondering if there was going to be a riot on the street, if only my mother was able to rely on electricity all day and all night, and if only the police were better paid and not corrupt so my parents hadn’t had to experience armed burglaries three frigging times. I am happy for what I have. I am bitter for what my possible, un-immigrated self does not.

I asked Raihana (because I share all my angst with my 8 year-old daughter), “Do you think I did the right thing by immigrating?” She finished a mouthful of clam as thoughtfully as you can chew a mouthful of clam and said with characteristic bluntness, “There are some things that are good, and some that are bad. It’s bad because you had to leave your home-sweet-home” – I smiled – “and it’s good because now you’re in your” – she raised her eyebrows and opened her eyes wide, and raised her index fingers in exaggerated air-quotes “now you’re in your home sweet home” and of course we ended up laughing.

America is home now. This is not a treacherous or pro-imperialist thing to say. This is about picking Raihana up from school and exchanging pleasantries with her teacher, about knowing how to deposit checks at the bank, about spending Sunday afternoon at the public library. As “Intisar”, one of my research participants told me, “it’s just life, we just go through it.”

So America is home. And Pakistan, despite the fact that my heart breaks to say it, is less home every year that I spend away from it. Despite the fact that the cold, foggy mornings I walked to classrooms at the Convent of Jesus & Mary school in Lahore are still alive for me, electrically alive, the reality of Pakistan has grown up without me.

Am I proud of this? Would you be proud of leaving your deepest memories behind, like the protagonist in Memento? Would it be anything other than traumatic to let go? 

If I feel pride, I should describe it as a class-based pride. When I stand in line at airports, and we glance at each other’s passports, and mine is a royal burgundy (that would be my U.K. passport) and yours might be a green (Zareena Grewal describes the impact of her “haughty navy blue vinyl”). It’s similar to the way we glance comparatively at each other’s outfits, and I shrink a little in my Old Navy sweats when I stand next to a woman in Chanel.

Even Raihana recognizes this. She went on to say, “Mama, it’s a good thing you immigrated because America is a good country” and then she said “it’s a richer country, and aren’t you happy that I don’t go to a really poor school?”

Ultimately, class defines many of our choices. Today, many middle class Pakistanis invest hard-earned savings into their children’s American education, as they themselves watch the terrorists become more fearless and the authorities more and more ineffectual. They hope that they are investing in tomorrow, and many are teaching their children the wisdom of jumping from a sinking ship.

Am I proud I jumped? Seriously? I have deep shame and embarrassment when I speak to Pakistani academics like the ones I interviewed who dedicate their days to making things better. I could have been in their position. Does holding a navy blue passport make me better than them? Maybe it makes me more of a coward, in some ways. I hold in deepest respect my Pakistani family and friends who make their way to work in searing heat, and without the benefit (often) of airconditioning or even fans, those fathers riding Kawasaki motorcycles with five children in school uniforms, those mothers walking to their house-maid jobs so that they can put daal and onions on the table for their children, those children in their grubby khaki school uniforms trying to focus on schoolwork in 110 degree heat.

Yes, I admire much about the United States political system, and I find personal relief in its friendly individualism. Yes, it is home in many ways, and I am glad that my daughter has the benefit of a public library system of stupendous power and resources, that I have access to almost every research database I need, and that everyday life – despite the pockmarked roads of Champaign post-snow – is very, very easy. That ease of everyday life is, in part, what drives much of America’s immigration narrative. Once you’ve tasted this ease, the availability of clean public toilets, the highway system, the scale of life, the size of homes (sorry, Britain), the variety of climate within its borders, the relative emphasis on customer service (have you tried complaining about gas, electricity, and telephones in Pakistan?) – most of us can do nothing but fight tooth and claw to hold on tight. Is there pride in that fight? Some would say there is, the pride of agency, the pride of rejecting a fatalistic victimhood (no, the two don’t necessarily go together), the pride of self-empowerment, the pride of self-respect, the pride that rejects a meek embrace of whatever comes. No que sera, sera in this pride.

But as I fill up on cheap gas, enjoy daily showers, and print reams and reams of journal articles, I know, too, that this pride rests on the backs of billions who do not enjoy daily showers or even potable water, who have outdated textbooks in their schools, and who walk miles and miles in unforgiving weather to work.