A Ukrainian chess champion is prepared to lose her two world titles rather than defend them in a tournament held in Saudi Arabia. Anna Muzychuk said she would skip the lucrative event to protest the treatment of women in that country.
Muzychuk, 27, is the reigning women’s world champion in both rapid and blitz chess. In a recent Facebook post, she said she “decided not to go to Saudi Arabia” because she did not want “to play by someone’s rules,” including being made to “wear [an] abaya,” the loosefitting garment the country usually requires women to cover themselves with while in public.
Muzychuk also said she was opposed to being “accompanied getting outside,” and to being made to feel like “a secondary creature.”
By skipping the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships, which began Tuesday in Riyadh and end Saturday, Muzychuk said she was aware that not only was she set to “lose two World Champion titles — one by one,” but also to pass up an opportunity to “earn more than I do in a dozen of events combined.” The $2 million prize fund for the championships, which have been named for Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, was declared by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) to be “almost 350% more than the previous event.”
The federation also said that the dress code for the event would entail “dark blue or black formal trouser suits, with high necked white blouses” for women. “There will be no need to wear a hijab or abaya during the games, this will be a first for any sporting event in Saudi Arabia,” FIDE announced in November.
Nevertheless, neither Muzychuk nor her younger sister Mariya, a former world champion in her own right, are competing at the championships. “I am really happy that we share this point of view,” Muzychuk said on Facebook.
The Riyadh tournament has also created headlines for the absence of chess players from Israel, who were denied visas. Saudi officials have said that they cannot issue the visas because their kingdom has no diplomatic ties with Israel, while the chess federation in the latter country is seeking financial compensation.
“There needs to be a clear separation between sports and politics,” said Lior Aizenberg, a spokesman for the Israeli Chess Federation. “We want our players to play in all competitions. What is going on in the Arab world does not interest us.”
Hikaru Nakamura, the U.S.’s top-ranked rapid and blitz chess player, is also skipping the event. “To organize a chess tournament in a country where basic human rights aren’t valued is horrible,” Nakamura said in a November tweet. “Chess is a game where all different sorts of people can come together, not a game in which people are divided because of their religion or country of origin.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is leading an effort, called Vision 2030, to modernize aspects of his society, and in September the government announced that women will be allowed to drive, starting in mid-2018. However, women in Saudi Arabia still need the permission of male guardians to marry, get divorced, attain employment, travel or have elective surgery (per CNN), and mixing with men in public places is still largely forbidden.
“As to whether it was right or wrong, there will certainly be people who will support me and people who will condemn me,” Muzychuk told Reuters of her decision to boycott the tournament. “But I took this decision and I am responsible for it.”
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