Despite years of practice and anticipation, a world chess star is sitting out this year's Women's World Chess Championship to stand on principle.
Nazi Paikidze, a 23-year-old American woman, said the opportunity to compete at championship this February in Iran is not worth the cost of surrendering her civil liberties as a woman. To compete in Iran, she would have to cover her hair with the Sharia-mandated hijab for the duration of the seven-day competition.
A hijab, traditional Arab garb, covers a woman's hair, neck and part of her face. It was a rare sight among Persian women, until Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution replaced a constitution that guaranteed equal rights for women with a basic law in line an interpretation of Islamic law that placed women in a subordinate position.
"I think most people don't realize how severely restricted women's rights are in Iran," Paikidze wrote in a Instagram post, that went viral last month. "Some consider a hijab part of culture. 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 [not] support women's oppression. Even if it means missing one of the most important competitions of my career."
A Russian-born chess player who learned to play chess when she was just four years old, Paikidze won her first international chess tournament at nine year old. By the time she was fourteen, she had earned the titles of International Master and Woman Grandmaster from the World Chess Federation (Federation Internationale des Echecs, often known by its French acronym, FIDE).
Paikidze became the United States women's chess champion in 2016 and an official U.S. delegate to the world championships. She is one of 64 women around the world who earned the right to compete in the February championship. But her beliefs are even more important to her than victory, she said.
She is asking others to follow her lead. In a Change.org petition, Paikidze urged the FIDE to change the location of the tournament, citing Iran's speech restrictions, treatment of women, and safety risks to delegates from countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. She had almost 17,000 online supporters as of November 13, 2016.
The world chess federation, based in Greece, said it did not plan to change the location of the championship, in part because Iran was the only country to propose hosting the event.
"It is not a FIDE [spell out acornym} regulation or requirement to wear a hijab during the event," Anastasiya Karlovich, a FIDE spokesperson, said. "I would kindly refer you to local laws or regulations such as wearing the hijab, if you kindly check the UK foreign office website for more information you will find there, 'You should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions at all times and be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend.'"
Yielding to local customs restricting women would be violating FIDE's own handbook on discriminatory practices, the U.S. Chess Federation spokesman argues. "U.S. Chess Federation believes that the World Chess Federation should follow its handbook and not tolerate discriminatory treatment for 'national, political, racial, social or religious reasons or on account of gender,'" U.S. Chess Federation president Gary Walters said in a statement to American Media Institute, citing the FIDE handbook. "In addition, 'FIDE events (competitions, congresses, meetings) [should] be hosted only by federations where free access is generally assured to representatives of all federations.'"
Paikidze expressed similar sentiments on social media in response to attacks against her over the internet.
"I think it's unacceptable to host a WOMEN'S World Championship in a place where women do not have basic fundamental rights and are treated as second-class citizens," she wrote. "For those saying that I don't know anything about Iran: I have received the most support and gratitude from the people of Iran, who are facing this situation every day."
Out of over 100 weekly US Chess tournaments held across the country, none of them were boycotted or had reason to be, Walters said. However, the U.S. Chess Federation expressed steadfast support of Paikidze's boycott.
"U.S. Chess supports Ms. Paikidze's principled stance regarding the wearing of a hijab," said Walters. "She firmly believes that the World Championship attendees should not be compelled to adhere to religious dress requirements. We support her stance without reservation."
So far, Paikidze is the only delegate from the 64 elected delegates to boycott in the February tournaments, and have her national federation support her in doing so. Furthermore, none of the delegates from the 159 other national federations that are FIDE members had protested having the event in Iran, a FIDE spokesman told AMI.
After weeks of interviews and media appearances, Paikidze feels unsafe. She does not want to sit through another interview, only to feel her and her loved ones' personal safety is at risk. While her peers and other delegates may support her boycott in principle, they are afraid to speak out against a tournament hosted in Iran, she tells American Media Institute.
"As far as I know, there are a lot of people who are against it but are not willing to boycott it," she says.