In February next year Iran will host a rare international women’s event- the world chess championship. Though, the tournament is still four months away, the tournament has created a buzz around the world. There is skepticism, outrage and plain amusement over Iran’s insistence on all women, including visitors, wearing hijab in public. Failure would result in a fine or a prison term.
A day after Iran was awarded the championship, US champion Nazi Paikidze pulled out. Many may take her lead. Paikidze, the highest-ranked American, said she would ‘rather risk her career than be forced to wear a hijab.’ Indian Grandmaster Koneru Humpy, who has decided to compete, recalled how ‘uncomfortable’ it was during a Grand Prix in Iran earlier this year.
Iran was chosen as the host country during the FIDE Congress in Baku last week after no other country bid to host the event, according to the world governing body. England Grandmaster Nigel Short said it was understandable to wear headscarves if you’re visiting the country as a tourist, but called it ‘illegal’ to make sportspersons wear it during a competition. “The FIDE statutes and International Olympic Committee code of ethics are very clear on not allowing discrimination on sexual and religious matters. The obligation to wear a hijab exposes this,” he told The Indian Express over phone from Athens. “People from different background – Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, atheists – will be there. I don’t think they should be compelled to cover themselves in such a way in an international sporting event.” For the players, the problems lie beyond merely the cultural issues. Humpy, who had taken part in the Grand Prix held in Iran earlier this year, said the atmosphere was ‘slightly different’ and there were some distractions too when her scarf fell during a game. “I was very uncomfortable in the starting round. During one of the games, my headscarf came off and the arbiter came instantaneously and told me to wear it properly. It’s a distraction,” she said. “It was somewhat different from general atmosphere (at other events). But since it is allotted to them, there is nothing more to discuss. It’s up to the players whether they are interested (to go) or not.”
The strict dress code also took some time getting used to, especially for the players from the western countries. “You had to be covered till at least knee length. We are used to it, but for those from the West it was an issue,” Humpy said. Short added: “Most of the girls have men as coaches. So if they have to be in the same room to analyse their games, even that is not allowed.”
In a statement published on chess website, Chess Daily News, FIDE said they are ‘reviewing all possible solutions’. “At this point in time, there have been no official complaints to FIDE from any player who is eligible to participate in the Women’s World Championship 2017,” they said. “FIDE is nevertheless reviewing all possible solutions for the players’ comfort and will discuss all the issues with the organisers in Iran during meetings in the next few weeks.”
The chorus to move the championship is growing. But FIDE has stuck to its stand. “They could theoretically play in a room where they have only female arbiters, only female officials, no photographs and you play the world championship there. That is an option,” Short said. “But that won’t happen. So the event ought to be moved to another country.”