Respecting women's rights at the World Chess Championship

OCTOBER 6 ― It was quietly approved by the General Assembly of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) Congress which was held concurrently with the 42nd World Chess Olympiad last month: the organisation of the Women's World Chess Championship has been awarded to Teheran, Iran.

For the chess world at large, this was only known when the decision was published by FIDE on its website and Peter Doggers of the excellent global chess website www.chess.com commented about it a day later.

Doggers had also picked up the response of one of the 64 participants, current USA Women's Champion Nazi Paikidze-Barnes to a post on Twitter by English Grandmaster Nigel Short whose post read: "2017 Women's Wrld Ch. awarded to Iran. Women forced to wear the Islamic hijab, flouting FIDE statutes against sex & religious discrimination" where she expressed her disappointment: "It's very upsetting that I have to miss my first Women's World Championship. For many reasons."

What Nazi Palkidze had to say about the championship being held in Teheran.
What Nazi Palkidze had to say about the championship being held in Teheran.

These included a US government Iran Travel Advisory, but also her absolute refusal to be forced to put on a head scarf as is required by Iran. (While not specifically mentioned, there are also apparently rules regarding the ability of the players to interact with their male coaches as some familiar with tournaments in Iran subsequently observed.)

Mainstream media has been quick to pick up this story, beginning with The Telegraph and Fox News, CNN, The AtlanticUS News, NY Magazine, Daily Mail, RT,The Guardian and so on. In fact, thanks to news syndication, this story was in practically every major newspaper last week!

It was, however, Short's advice to Pakidze-Barnes to seek an official statement from Susan Polgar, a fellow US citizen and the chairman of the FIDE Commission for Women's Chess, that ignited the storm that followed and fed media interest further.

Polgar's reaction was naturally defensive and she was unable to dismiss the matter raised by a fellow citizen who is also a female and over time her position evolved, first from denial that her FIDE Commission had been consulted, to explaining her position where she stated she had no personal problem wearing a head scarf to respect a country's culture, to being angry at the perceived ingratitude shown to her when trying to solve the problem and finally going on the attack by claiming double standards with a comparison to the time when former World Champion Viswanathan Anand played in Iran in 2000.

The spin has also started with the posting on Facebook of various photos taken from websites showing women players playing in head scarfs and claiming they had no problem with it when in fact they said they had accepted it and after some initial discomfort had gotten used to it.

Emil Sutovsky, the Association of Chess Professionals (ACP) president, has also been passionate in his personal capacity and his Facebook post inviting comment was hard hitting and blunt:

Screenshot of Twitter exchange between Jon Ludvig Hammer and Susan Polgar.
Screenshot of Twitter exchange between Jon Ludvig Hammer and Susan Polgar.

"FIDE has brought a very serious argument for approving Iran as a venue for the Women's World Championship: NO SINGLE DELEGATE out of 156 federations present objected to that proposal. Now, that is a fact to grasp. ONE HUNDRED FIFTY SIX DELEGATES. East and West. The pillars of democracy and totalitarian regimes singing in unison. Gens una sumus. Bravo, encore! 

Do they care at all? Some of them may have been missing at that very moment, but still... Nobody saw any reason to be concerned? At least to discuss it properly? 

That's the biggest problem of the chess world - national federations are often ruled and represented by the people who don't really care or care only about their own interest. That's why we hear about more and more conflicts between the national federations and their own top players, but we seldom hear about any new ideas or bold statement coming from the federations. And in many federations, the same people are ruling for 20-30 years...Good for FIDE - it is much easier to shepherd the federations this way. Bad for players, and in a nutshell ― bad for chess."

Jumping right into the fray is Grandmaster Carla Heredia Serrano who is now leading a fight to take it even one step further and perhaps even beyond chess with the circulation of a petition "Stop Women's Oppression at the World Chess Championship by Challenging FIDE's Decision."

A simple Google search will give the interested reader access to everything that has been said publicly, but a less impassioned observer will probably share my takeaway as the facts slowly emerged:

1. FIDE, as we all know, is close to running our of funds and as I have said many times, has no sponsors. it operates through the collection of fees from ratings and titles and a levy on the prize funds of its official events. There is hardly anyone interested in organising its events other than regimes looking for international credibility and the situation is at its worst when it comes to women's chess.

2. No official statement has appeared on its website but it has been communicated by FIDE that there was no objection by any of the delegates at the General Assembly. As expected, this is a shifting of responsibility while refusing to address the real issues, paramount amongst them being if indeed concessions had been made to Iran, why was this not disclosed?

3. The current Women's World Chess Champion has announced why she will no longer take part in the World Championship cycle and the other players seem optimistic that a road has now opened for them to become world champion!

4. It is hard to know what exactly the FIDE Commission for Women's Chess does and it is telling that when it comes to their most important event, the Women's World Chess Championship, they are not even consulted by the FIDE leadership (if what Polgar says is true) and it is alarming that it seems they either do not care or feel that it is important that the rights of women chess players are protected, let alone being proactively advanced. They do not care about the situation with their own World Champion, and have certainly not reacted to the many controversies when women's events have been held in Iran in the past, and most interestingly do not seem to be engaged or in contact with the top women players.

5. While I do not disagree with Sutovsky's general opinion of the delegates, I do not want to lump them all together, and in this particular instance it seems they were not provided real and correct information of this award which I understand was actually not a bid by Iran but a request by FIDE to do it with promises of help to be given later!

6. We have to also be fair to Iran in that their limitations in hosting international events are well known but rather than have no event, both FIDE and players have tolerated the conditions in the past. And to also be fair to the players, one cannot also realistically expect that most will dare speak up given that they will be victimised by both FIDE and the organisers and in some case even by their own national chess federations! Here is where I argue that an organisation like the ACP needs to grow to the point they can actually protect chess professionals and their livelihood.

7. FIDE has also said there will be no changes so the likely outcome despite all this initial "excitement" will be that almost all of the 64 "qualified" players will show up in Teheran for the knock-out event in February 2017 (unless the venue in Iran and the dates are changed for financial reasons) or if Iran withdraws in which case Russia or a Russia-friendly regime will step in... again.

Women's rights in chess? Human rights? Let's start first with professional chess players' rights!   

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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