The world of competitive chess has been mired in controversy ever since organizers decided to hold the 2017 Women’s World Chess Championship in Iran, a country where women are forced to wear a hijab. Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, the reigning US Chess Champion, has announced that she will not participate in the event in protest of the hijab requirement.
“I will not wear a hijab and support women’s oppression,” Nazi told the founder of My Stealthy Freedom. “Even if it means missing one of the most important competitions of my career.”
A total of 64 women are slated to compete in Tehran next February in what is considered the Super Bowl of women’s chess. The event is sponsored by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and has predominantly been held in Russia and other former Soviet countries throughout its 89-year history.
FIDE’s decision to hold the 2017 championship in Tehran was met with immediate backlash on the part of fans and players like. “This is not only about 64 players, this is a world issue, a women’s rights issue,” former Pan American champion Carla Heredia told CNN.
As the current U.S. Women’s Champion, Nazi’s voice carries a lot of clout within the chess community. She has embarked on a social media campaign to unite those opposed to the Tehran venue under the hashtag #DefendWomensRights, blasting what she refers to as “religious and sexist discrimination.”
“Iran has hosted chess tournaments before and women were always forced to wear a hijab,” Nazi said. “We don’t see this event being any different, forced hijab is the country’s law. If the venue of the championship is not changed, I will not be participating.”
Susan Polgar, chairman of FIDE’s Commission for Women’s Chess, has decided to fight Nazi. She believes that players like Nazi should respect “cultural differences” and encouraged her to voice her concerns to FIDE instead of organizing a boycott.
Angered by Polgar’s apparent attempt to stifle her protest, Nazi defiantly fired back: “I already did. Thanks to Twitter this issue got a lot of attention as well.” The two became embroiled in a Twitter feud, with Polgar insisting that she is only trying to help and Nazi standing by her actions.
Nazi was born in Russia and raised in the neighboring country of Georgia, where she learned chess as part of her elementary school’s curriculum. Nazi – whose name comes not from Germany but from her grandmother and means “delicate” in Georgian – soon became recognized as a child prodigy in the game and began competing internationally, winning her first large tournament at age 10.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County accepted Nazi to participate in its highly-decorated chess program in 2012. A year later, at age 20, Nazi had been named an International Master and relocated permanently to the United States. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband, Greg Barnes.