As one of the most successful women to ever play the male-dominated game of chess, Nazi Paikidze is used to having her moves watched closely.
Her latest has drawn international attention: Paikidze announced last week that she will boycott February’s Women's World Chess Championship in Iran because the players will have to wear hijabs.
Paikidze’s decision will deprive the tournament of one of the game’s brightest stars and biggest draws — the U.S. champion who once told a magazine she would “do everything I can to help more girls get into chess.”
Islamic coverings for women in public — required in Iran and some other nations such as Saudi Arabia — have increasingly become a target for both protests and struggles over Muslim identity. Some activists in Iran have launched online campaigns against the hijab rules, while other women continually test the boundaries by pushing back headscarves to near gravity-defying levels.
Yet some women in other Muslim countries, such as Turkey, have battled against restrictions banning headscarves in some public settings, while some conservative Muslim women in the West have pushed for permission to wear headscarves in athletic competitions and other venues.
“Some consider a hijab part of culture,” Paikidze said in an Instagram post announcing her decision. “But, I know that a lot of Iranian women are bravely protesting this forced law daily and risking a lot by doing so. That’s why I will NOT wear a hijab and support women's oppression.”
Paikidze also launched a campaign on Change.org demanding that the World Chess Federation reconsider Iran as a host for the women’s championship.
“These issues reach far beyond the chess world,” the petition says. “While there has been social progress in Iran, women’s rights remain severely restricted. This is more than one event; it is a fight for women’s rights.”
The petition has been signed by more than 3,000 people.
But some disagree with Paikidze’s stance. Mitra Hejazipour, a woman grandmaster (WGM) and the 2015 Asian continental women’s champion, said a boycott would be a setback for female sport in Iran.
“This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen; we haven’t been able to host any world championship in other sporting fields for women in the past,” Hejazipour, 23, told the Guardian. “It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”
According to CNN, Iran was the only country that submitted a proposal to host the event. A WCF spokeswoman told CNN there were no objections from any of the 150 national federations, including the U.S. Chess Federation.
In a statement on its website, the WCF said: "It is not a [federation] regulation or requirement to wear a hijab during the event.” The statement says the organization does require participants to “respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions at all times and be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend.”
The statement said the Iranian Chess Federation had successfully organized another event in February, with no complaints.
Paikidze was born in Russia and raised in Tbilisi, Georgia, where chess was part of her elementary school curriculum, according to her biography. She began winning national tournaments and competing for international youth championships. When she turned 18, she moved to the United States to attend the University of Maryland Baltimore County, whose powerhouse chess team recruited her via scholarship.
She tied for second place at the U.S. chess championship in 2015 and became champion a year later. Her website lists more than a dozen awards. She’s an international master and a woman grandmaster, is one of the top 100 active female players in the world and ranks fourth in the United States, according to the WCF.
The game that made Paikidze famous has deep roots in Iran, by some accounts dating back to the 6th century Persian empire, according to The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor. The game became deeply embedded in Persian culture and literary production. “Checkmate,” the move that finishes the game, comes from the Persian shāh-māt, which means “the king is frozen” or “the king is helpless,” according to the Metropolitan Museum.
The chess controversy reflects the wide spectrum of reactions countries have to Muslim veils. While Saudi Arabia and Iran have made it mandatory for women to cover themselves, other countries such as France and Belgium have outright bans on full-face veils — measures that have also been criticized.
When France introduced the ban on the full-face veil, a garment different from a hijab as it covers the majority of a woman's face, the U.S. State Department criticized the law calling it “an infringement on freedom of choice.”
Even though women such as Paikidze are boycotting the law, some women do find comfort in the hijab. In an opinion piece for the Guardian, Nadiya Takolia, a researcher, wrote that the hijab has empowered her and guarded her from feeling like “a pawn in society’s beauty game.”
But in a society where a woman’s value seems focused on her sexual charms, some wear [the hijab] explicitly as a feminist statement asserting an alternative mode of female empowerment. Politics, not religion, is the motivator here. I am one of these women.
In her criticism of Iran, Paikidze cited the “forced law” that made it mandatory for women to wear a hijab and mentioned “My Stealthy Freedom” project, which encourages Iranian women to post photos of themselves without their hijabs.
Within the first two days of its creation, 30,000 women posted photos of themselves. The page has been liked by more than a million people. It also shows pictures of Iranian women riding bikes, another illegal activity.
As The Post's Julia Carpenter wrote:
Displaying an uncovered head on Facebook is not as defiant as walking freely on a sidewalk in Tehran. But it’s an important step, and one that more and more women are taking.
In one photo dated May 15, a woman is running in an open field, a colorful scarf streaming behind her. She’s a distant figure; the vastness of the valley and the vivid blue of the sky almost hide her completely.
“My dear Masih,” she writes, “I love this photo dearly. I took it a month ago in Shiraz near Sheshpir River. It was a sunny day and my husband said ‘Don’t you really feel hot? Be comfortable..!’ So I removed my scarf from my head and started running in the plain.. I enjoyed the wind blowing through my hair so much that the sound of my laughter filled the whole plain.”
Masih Alinejad, the founder of the project, said the photos are an act of courage.
“These women are extremely brave because they have posted their photographs on Facebook, which is banned under the law in Iran,” she said. “They are in a way daring the authorities to arrest them. And with the publicity that the site has received, the pictures of these women are all over the world.”
On Wednesday, Alinejad co-authored an opinion piece for The Washington Post about Paikidze's "morally courageous move," writing that the chess champion "should not have to boycott the tournament. ... Instead, Iran should respect her choice, make the headscarf optional and lift its ban on women who choose not to cover their hair."
As word of the boycott spread, Paikidze took to Instagram again to explain herself "to the people of Iran."