Both Jacob Aagaard and David Smerdon, recently came out with opinion pieces that supported the Women’s World Championship in Iran. These two outspoken chess players join the voice of Susan Polgar, who also is in support of the tournament.
David’s piece is well thought out and articulate as usual, and I usually agree with his thoughts on various chess related issues, but I find this one troubling. First off, let me state that I’m sure it’s fun for all the women in the chess world to see lots of prominent men giving their opinions nonstop, but unfortunately, with the approximate 95-5% male to female ratio in chess, it’s going to be hard to avoid this.
Here’s David’s main point:
“Too-long-didn’t-read version: I don’t support a mass boycott of the upcoming women’s world chess championships in Iran, or removing Iran’s right to host. My reason is that it will hurt, not help, gender equality, particularly in Iran. This will probably make me unpopular.”
Here’s why I find this troubling: Imagine for whatever reason the Candidates Tournament was being held in a questionable place. Then imagine that two or three out of the eight participants refused to play for reasons that had some degree of validity to them. Would we then turn around and say “I don’t support a boycott of the Candidates because the tournament will help, not hurt, the general conditions in whatever country we are talking about”? Of course not, because people take something like the Candidates or the World Chess Championship, too seriously.
What people seem to be doing here is taking the Women’s World Championship, and making it more of a question of whether it’s good for gender equality in Iran, and forgetting the point that we are talking about the freaking Women’s World Championship!
Whether it’s good for gender equality or human rights in Iran should not be the main concern. We should instead recognize that the Women’s World Championship is an important tournament, and place our concern towards ensuring that the participants in this tournament feel comfortable and safe playing in the tournament.
Some of these authors have pointed out the numerous other chess tournaments that were held in questionable locations and which also involved boycotts by certain players. Jacob Aagaard specifically pointed out chess tournaments that were held in brutal dictatorships in which none of the players had any qualms about playing. I agree that in many of these cases, it would have been really nice if the tournaments weren’t held in the locations that they were. I don’t believe that failure to protest or be concerned about one thing, means that you shouldn’t be taken seriously when you are concerned about another thing. I also believe this is the first time the concern/suggested boycott is specifically gender related.
If one or two of the participants out of sixty four have a problem wearing the hijab or feel threatened being in Iran, I’m not sure what the correct course of action should be. However if a significant percentage of them don’t feel comfortable playing there, they should not have to. This is the World Championship; it’s main purpose finding the strongest female chess player in the world, it’s not about doing whatever we can to fight for gender equality in Iran. And when we base our main arguments around anything other than the competitive aspect of the Women’s World Championship, I think that we are showing that we don’t completely respect the event and the players involved.
Note that I actually have no idea just how many of the invited participants have an issue with playing in Iran. My main point is that if many of them do, then there is a serious problem and we should not be trying to coax these women into playing for the good of Iran or for the advancement of gender equality.
So while I think I agree with the basic tenet that women playing in the Women’s World Championship would be good for Iran and gender equality, I also think it’s unreasonable to treat this as a priority when we are talking about an event as important as the World Championship. This is a tournament these women have worked their whole lives to earn the right to play in, and they deserve to be able to play in it without having to go against their values and without fearing for their safety.
I can certainly understand how it might be objectionable for women to feel forced to wear a hijab. I’m sure as hell not going to start listing all of the logical reasons why I think they should go ahead and play anyway.