No to the Hijab, Yes to Women's Rights

Sometimes it only takes one person to draw attention to an atrocity, and right now, Nazi Paikidze is that one. A world-renowned women’s chess champion, Paikidze is currently in the spotlight for her stated refusal to compete in the Women’s World Chess Championship next year. The championship will be held in Iran, where participants will be required to conform to the nation’s mandatory Islamic dress code of hijabs for women.

Paikidze is not willing to wear a hijab, and she has stated that she will boycott the competition if forced to do so. “I will NOT wear a hijab and support women’s oppression,” Paikidze stated. “Even if it means missing one of the most important competitions of my career.”

I agree with Paikidze’s bold stance on this issue, but there are layers of complexity that should be addressed here that go beyond the hijab itself.

First, let me say that Americans should not be under the illusion that the freedoms we enjoy here are granted elsewhere, and there is an expectation of respecting the traditional and religious customs that are intertwined with the law in these countries. This is why I would never choose to vacation or travel in a place like Iran, because like Paikidze, I would not be willing to take on the entrapments of an oppressive society, which I (and most of the rest of the world) believe Iran to be.

I have also traveled to countries where it may not be law to dress a certain way, yet traditional beliefs could lead some to make unsavory assumptions about women. In those countries, I chose to respect that belief, which amounted to wearing long skirts versus pants in public. I did not have to make that choice, but I chose to. And not making that choice would not have landed me in jail.

Additionally, let me also say that any woman who chooses to wear a hijab because she chooses to reform to the implications of modesty that it represents to some Muslims should not be ridiculed or judged, nor should the assumption be that this woman is oppressed. Our country in particular is harsh to women who choose a more traditional path, whether that path be religious in nature or not. Women who choose to stay home and raise their families, for example, are often chastised or looked down upon, as if their choice reflects some sort of diminished value. We also see judgment against those who prefer the traditional customs of their Christian faith in terms of dating and sex.

But even if they are judged, American women have a choice. They can walk down the street in a skimpy halter top with no bra, or they can cover their body from head to toe. And they won’t be prosecuted for either choice.

In Iran, women who do not conform to the law can receive prison time and lashes. Those who escape the law’s prosecution don’t always escape the men’s persecution, however. In recent years, a group of women was attacked with acid, and the belief is that the attack was motivated by their lack of proper headwear and loose clothing. So while the government’s morality police may not get you, your neighbors in the street might.

The reality is that these women are being robbed of their choice, and failure to follow the law leads to harsh punishments, Muslim or not. So why didn’t the organizers of the chess match think of this before choosing their host? I wonder if any women were on the selection committee. I hope not, otherwise this decision would be even more troubling.

The atrocity here is not the hijab itself; the atrocity is the lack of choice for women  and lack of insight on part of the committee who chose to bring their female competitors into this oppressive community.

I don’t see change coming anytime soon, even though women in Iran are speaking up and out. I pray that their collective voices will continue to grow and are eventually not only heard, but respected. 

And in the meantime, I say thank you to Nazi Paikidze for being brave enough to speak for them.

Please sign this international petition in support of moving this tournament out of Iran: