“I will NOT wear a hijab and support women’s oppression,” were the words from Nazí Paikidze, the 22 year old Georgian-American chess player who just recently announed that she would boycott the 2017 world championships scheduled to be held in Iran. Paikidze, the reigning United States women’s champion, took issue with the Iranian government’s oppressive laws against women and their insistence that the women participating in the tournament be made to wear hijabs. Far too often in the West, we ignore the marginalized groups in more regressive cultures around the world in the name of moral relativity (often mischaracterized in the broader conversation as cultural relativism) and it’s always refreshing to hear a voice like Paikidze’s standing up to the absurdity.
Let’s start here: I do not believe that the moral values of all cultures are created equally. As moral individuals, we have a duty to stand up to systemic injustice around the world wherever we see it. Though far from the only example, perhaps the most visible and frequently ignored example of this injustice is the treatment of women in much of the Islamic world, where fully half of the population (ignoring for the moment other marginalized groups such as homosexuals and non-Muslims) are treated as second-hand citizens. In addition to being forced to wear the hijab in public as a means of remaining “modest,” women in Iran are, amongst other things, not allowed to pursue a career that conflicts with their family life, prevented from leaving the country without the permission of their husband, denied testimony in certain legal cases and given half the weight of men in others, and entitled to just half the inheritance of male children upon the death of a parent. If we had just one of these stipulations written in the law books in the United States, there would be an indignant — righteous! — outrage. Yet we have collectively decided to tolerate this unfair behavior in another country with the excuse of “it’s just their culture.”
What’s more, apologists for medieval Islamic beliefs on women will insist on the right of practitioners of these beliefs to impose them on innocent people who do not share them. They believe that it is perfectly acceptable for non-Muslim women to be forced to cover themselves just because they are in a country where such a practice is the norm. Who are these apologists? The list begins with everybody in the World Chess Federation (FIDE) who deemed it appropriate to schedule the championships in a country that actively discriminates against women rather than removing it from consideration entirely. And it goes on to include every person in the West, from the top down, that refuses to acknowledge the human rights issues and endemic flaws in the brand of Islam found in Iran and other comparable Muslim pseudo-theocracies. In tolerating this intolerance, we are collectively demonstrating a passive acceptance of backwards social values that should be morally repugnant to all those who believe in the ideals at the heart of Western civilization: namely, freedom and liberty.
At this point, in order to maintain my credibility it seems necessary to inform the reader that I am aware that there are differences between every Muslim country, every denomination of Islam, and every individual practitioner of the religion, and do not mean to paint 1.6 billion people with the same negative broad brush. I also know that there are many women in Muslim countries that require head coverings, as well as many in countries that do not, who will defend the practices and insist that they are not discriminatory. But at the risk of sounding patronizing, I can’t see these beliefs as being anything other than the result of cultural brainwashing. When a woman has been brought up her whole life believing that her body is a sacred vessel viewable only by her husband, it is not surprising that she feels indecent when exposing her hair or parts of her skin. Crucially though, acceptance of bigotry and sexism does not make it invisible, and a historical examination of the veiling of women reveals that it was almost always used in conjunction with the ideas that women were either property or “indecent” if exposed, never out of a concept of self-respect. Thankfully, we have done away with those ideas in the 21st century and a practice that is still reflective of them has no place in the modern world.
How then do we combat these pernicious beliefs? The answer is not, as has often been tried by the West, to export our democracy through force, as such a plan only yields resentment and bloodshed. Nor is it to swing the pendulum in the complete opposite direction and ban Muslims or garb associated with them, as France did with the “Burkini” swimsuit, as this fearful response only indicates an intolerance equal to the one we should be combating. Instead, the only sustainable solution is reform that comes from within the Muslim world itself. Reform doesn’t come about unprovoked, however, and would in this case require either revolution or external pressure. And therein lies the role of Paikidze and other brave individuals like her.
In boycotting the world championships, Paikidze is telling the rest of the world that she will not stand for the continued persecution of women in Iran or elsewhere. Though she is just one person, her absence from the event and others that could follow her lead should act in a small way to discredit it and subsequently to convince FIDE to schedule the championships somewhere else in the future. Exclusion and ostracism from international activities in a globalized word is the first step to getting countries like Iran to change something about themselves; in short, they should be asked to keep up or be left out. Perhaps if more people followed suit at the chess championships and at other events yet to come, stopped being so accepting of regressive values and began to tell Iran and the Muslim world that women need to be treated equally, we might start seeing some actual results.