A month ago, few people had heard of Nazi Paikidze-Barnes. But the 22-year old reigning U.S. women’s chess champion hit headlines last week after announcing that she was boycotting next year’s chess championships in Iran. Her reason? She’d have to compete in the event wearing a hijab. And if she chose not to wear it? She’d face arrest.
Taking to Facebook, Nazi wrote: 'I will not wear a hijab and support women’s oppression. Even if it means missing one of the most important competition of my career.' She’s since launched a petition demanding to change the event’s location, amassing 15,000 signatures.
Nazi wasn’t the only one outraged. Reigning female chess players leapt to her defence, with Carla Heredia, the Women Grand Master of Chess adding: 'No institution, no government, nor a women’s world chess championship should force women to wear a hijab'. Meanwhile, former British world title contender Nigel Short stated: 'If you are deeply Christian why would you want to wear a symbol of Islamic oppression of women?'
It’s not hard to see why the assumption that the hijab is a symbol of oppression still persists. Since the hijab became mandatory in Iran during 1979, it’s arguably been used as a tool to police women’s bodies.
It’s not uncommon for women to be fined or even flogged by the so-called morality police for being ‘badly veiled’. Cases of acid attacks even spiked after women supposedly ‘pushed boundaries’ for wearing the hijab too loosely or revealing stands of hair.
While I empathise with Nazi – after all, no woman should be forced to wear something that they’re uncomfortable with – even so, her protest seems somewhat misguided. While tabloids (and Nazi herself) would have you believe that all veiled women are forced into doing so, there is a marked difference between compulsory veiling, and the millions of Muslim women the world over who choose – and enjoy – wearing it. Sadly, this seems to have been lost amidst the furore.
And as Nazi’s boycott continued to dominate the global news agenda, I couldn’t ignore how her boycott fed into the whole narrative of Iranian women – namely Muslim women – need ‘saving’.
Nazi isn’t the first and she certainly isn’t the last to perpetuate this rhetoric. Global hashtag campaigns like #CanYouHearUsNow and #TraditionallySubmissive which sought to challenge misconceptions of Muslim women, sadly, seem to have had little effect in terms of changing the generally accepted narrative.
This summer saw hysterical political islamophobia, served with a side dish of sexism make headlines regularly. UKIP leadership contender Lisa Duffy, for one, spent a significant proportion of it on a [frankly terrifying] one-woman crusade to give Muslim women like me ‘greater freedoms’: 'Why should I, as a white, Christian woman, effectively enjoy greater civil and human rights and freedoms than others?' she said. She went as far as to say that should she be elected as leader of UKIP one of her key policies would be to ban the veil in public places.
On the other side of the pond, Donald Trump alleged that Muslim women weren’t allowed to speak, like the time he criticised the mother of an American soldier who had been killed in Iraq after her husband spoke of their suffering at the DNC in July and criticised Trump for having 'sacrificed nothing' for his country. 'I’d like to hear his wife say something' Trump said, 'probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.'
Frankly it’s frustrating that Nazi has re-ignited this myth. 'I’m very bored of people wanting to "liberate" us,' Zaynab, a London-based education adviser, tells The Debrief. 'It’s a colonial mindset which needs to change.'
'Many Muslim women choose to wear the hijab. It’s a source of pride, comfort and security for them,' Asma, 26, a spoken word poet and basketball coach, adds. 'She has no right to take that narrative away from them and project the narrative of oppression alone.'
Considering that the boycott is centred around Iranian women’s ‘second class’ status because they wear the hijab, I ask Asma, a sportswoman, whether she finds that ironic when it was her hijab that enabled her to take up basketball in the first place?
Surprisingly she disagrees, telling me that she feels that Nazi’s fight is valid: 'There are many girls who feel like they can’t join a club because [they] feel like they will stand out too much. It never stopped me because I never viewed myself as a hijabi basketball player. I just viewed myself as a basketball player.'
But surely Nazi’s boycott is just undermining efforts being made to promote women’s sport in Iran, I ask Asma?
'It has created awareness about the variety of sports Iran is willing to host in its country. It’s clear they are willing to integrate with the rest of the world,' Asma tells me. 'We cannot expect them to get rid of their laws about the hijab straight away. We have to walk with them at their pace.'
Asma might be optimistic about Nazi’s intentions but I can’t shake off how frustrating it is that Nazi is so vocal about Muslim women’s so-called oppression when Georgia, her own country of birth’s record on women’s rights is questionable at best. A 2009 study found that 35.9% of women reported that their male partners control their behaviour, for one - and the figures could still be higher.
And the United States – the country she currently resides in – is home to countless threats to women’s rights, from abortion clinics closing at record rates to its questionable status as the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave . So much so that Polish anti-abortion activists who pushed for a total ban took inspiration from the intimidating tactics of their American counterparts. Where was Nazi calling out these? Or was it not an issue for her as it didn’t affect her directly?
Despite my grievances, it’s still worth applauding Nazi’s intention to raise awareness of Iranian women’s plight when their rights continue to be curtailed. They aren’t able to leave the country without getting permission from their husbands first, for one.
And there’s no denying that the efforts of Iranians to challenge this have arguably been futile. You only have to look at the #MenInHijab protest to see that while it made some strides, it was ineffective in creating lasting change in Iran.
Human rights activist and the founder of the #MenInHijab protest Masih Alinejad agrees: 'The control of women begins with controlling how they dress. So Nazi should be congratulated for standing up despite the volume of social media attacks from Iranian trolls and pressure from the chess federation.'
Even so, it’s hard to ignore just how much Nazi has helped to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment. After all, the media latches onto anything remotely guaranteed to enrage Islamophobes and capitalises on it. It’s not like I made international news when I didn’t go to church as a teenager at a Catholic school, is it?
The sad reality is that stoking these tensions has got far-reaching, human consequences: just this week, a woman in north London had her hijab pulled down.
Whether Nazi continues with her boycott or not, there’s no denying the impact she’s had. It’s not hard to find fault with her argument – that choice is taken away from women in Iran – but frankly it’s exhausting that instead of the world watching Iranian women competing in the biggest sporting event in their history, I’ve been left to defend my religion once again.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.