Some of the world's top chess players have decided to boycott this year's Women's World Championship in Iran because they refuse to wear headscarves as required by that country's Islamic government.
The international tournament starts in Tehran on Feb. 10, but nine of the 64 players who qualified are refusing to go. Four of them have said publicly that the boycott is in protest of Iran's restrictive laws against women.
One of the most outspoken chess players is Argentina's Carolina Lujan, who withdrew from the championship after the World Chess Federation told her she would have to abide by Iranian headscarf laws during the tournament. Lujan was also told she would not be allowed to be alone with a man in private—a restriction she says could hinder her ability to meet with her coach before each match.
“The obligatory use of the hijab is not just a simple dress code," Lujan wrote on Facebook. "It means a lot to me, and due to my beliefs and values I am not going to be forced into using it.”
Lujan added in a follow-up message, “In my country…we do not force Muslims to remove their hijab. We respect their choice.”
Former world champion Marya Muzychuk and U.S. Women's champ Nazi Paikidze are also boycotting the tournament in Iran. Paikidze, 23, organized a petition on change.org calling on the World Chess Federation to change the tournament's location.
“Some consider the hijab part of the culture. But I know that a lot of Iranian women are bravely protesting this forced law daily and risking a lot by doing so,” Paikidze said in an interview with Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad. “That's why I will not wear a hijab and support women's oppression, even if it means missing one of the most important competitions of my career.”
Many Muslim women wear the hijab by choice. But in Iran, the government has forced women to wear a headscarf in public since 1979, for modesty and deference. Women who violate the law are subject to hefty fines and even imprisonment.
The chess players' boycott of the tournament in Iran has received mixed reviews around the world. While the global chess community has been mostly supportive of the protest, some activists have said that boycotting the chess tournament only further isolates Iran, and won't do anything to change the situation for women in that country.
“In order to fight oppression, we should not act as saviours, but stand beside each other in solidarity,” wrote Gonche Ghavania, a British-Iranian activist. “Paikidze should come and see how our society really works, and how Iranian women fight oppression every day.”
Mitra Hejazipour, one of Iran's top chess players, said that boycotting the tournament would “hurt” women in Iran by undermining efforts to promote female sports in that country. Iran banned chess from 1979 to 1988, and still forbids women from attending some male sporting events. Many people had high hopes for the women's chess tournament.
“This is going to be the biggest sporting event that women in Iran have ever seen,” Hejazipour told The Guardian. “It is an opportunity for us to show our strength.”
The World Chess Federation said it picked Iran for this year's championship tournament because it was the only country that offered to host the event. But some critics think the federation should have delayed the tournament until it found a more suitable host.
“I disagree that any venue is better than no venue,” Emil Sutovsky, president of the Association of Chess Professionals, told Fusion. “The Women's World Championships should be staged at a venue convenient for all, with no restrictions and human rights violations.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.