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This Is Why One Chess Star Is Boycotting The World Championships In Iran

Grandmasters are split on the issue of hijabs in competition

Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, one of America’s top chess grandmasters, recently announced that she intends to skip February’s Women’s World Chess Championship in Tehran due to Iran’s requirement that women wear head coverings in public. “I know that a lot of Iranian women are bravely protesting this forced law daily and risking a lot by doing so,” Paikidze-Barnes told Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad. “That’s why I will not wear a hijab and support women’s oppression.”

Paikidze-Barnes was born in Russia, learned chess in Tbilisi, Georgia, and attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on scholarship. She won this summer’s U.S. Chess Championship and is ranked as one of the top 100 female players in the world.

Iran was the only country to submit a proposal to host the upcoming championships, and none of the 150 recognized national chess federations voiced an objection, according to the World Chess Federation. The WCF also has stated that the organization does not require wearing hijab during the event, but does require participants to “respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions.”

Religious head scarves are legally required for women in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Conversely, they are entirely banned in Belgium and Tunisia, and partially banned in nations like Italy, France, Germany, Russia, and China.

Hijab bans also have extended into sports. International basketball’s governing body, FIBA, bans any headgear, including religious garments wider than five centimeters—though the organization has experimented with a trial period allowing headgear in certain cases. International soccer’s governing body, FIFA, upheld a similar ban until 2014, after a campaign led by Jordanian prince Ali bin Hussein.

Other chess grandmasters are split on the issue. Former Pan American champion Carla Heredia, who did not qualify for February’s championships, has announced her support for Paikidze-Barnes’ boycott, while Mitra Hejazipour, a former Asian continental women’s champion, disagreed on the grounds that women’s participation in Iranian sport is a net positive. “These games are important for women in Iran,” Hejazipour told The Guardian. “It’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”

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