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Iranian women stand in line at a polling station during the parliamentary and Experts Assembly elections in Qom, 125 kilometres south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Iranian women stand in line at a polling station during the parliamentary and Experts Assembly elections in Qom, 125 kilometres south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Globe editorial

Women’s chess makes a bad move by holding championship in Iran Add to ...

Good chess players foresee the consequences of every move, long before it’s made. That’s what makes the choice of Iran as the host of the 2017 women’s world championships so strange.

Did no one in FIDE, the game’s governing body, wonder whether awarding the championships to a country hostile to women’s rights could cause big problems?

Top players have urged a boycott, and understandably so. In a sport where women are often treated as second-class citizens by their male counterparts, they are now told to submit to another, more visible form of discrimination. Any woman who aims to be chess’s world champion will first have to put on a hijab to compete for the title in Tehran.

FIDE has rules against discrimination but apparently decided to look the other way when Iran, a country whose chess-playing traditions go back 13 centuries, emerged as the sole bidder for the championships.

Defensive FIDE officials insist they’re not to blame: There is nothing in their regulations, they say, to mandate the wearing of a hijab. Their ingenious solution is simply to advise competitors to respect local traditions – when in Iran, do as one-half of the Iranian population has to do (however unwillingly). So don’t blame FIDE when the Tehran morality police turn the women’s best female players into unwilling pawns of the Islamic Revolution and force them to cover up.

Headscarves have been compulsory for women in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979, which put a halt to the relatively progressive social policy of the Shah that valued women’s equality. They are not the ornamental legacy of some picturesque local tradition but a turn-back-the-clock assertion of religious bias refashioned to suit the political conflicts of modern (and not-so-modern) Iran.

It’s true that foreign women who pursue work in Iran, such as news correspondents, will cover their heads. That is a necessity for their work, however uncomfortable it may be – there is no alternative, apart from being arrested or expelled or left at home.

But there is no compelling need for chess championships to be given to a country that compromises the rights and values of female competitors. If Iran won’t relax its rules for the top women chess players, FIDE should look for more welcoming and enlightened hosts.

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