Swaminathan says no to compulsory hijab

by Sagar Shah
6/18/2018 – “Tournaments should be held in places which uphold the rights of chess players”, says WGM Soumya Swaminathan after withdrawing from the Asian Nations Cup 2018 due to a dress code that requires women to wear a hijab. The Asian Nations Cup will be held from July 27th to August 4th, 2018 in Hamadan, Iran. Soumya has refused to travel to the tournament as she thinks that the dress code violates her human rights. This stand by Soumya which started as a small Facebook post has snowballed into international coverage.

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Originally published on Firstpost.com

One of India’s finest woman chess players, former World Junior Champion, former Commonwealth Champion and Woman Grandmaster Soumya Swaminathan has decided to pull out of the Asian Nations Cup 2018 that will be held in Iran from July 27th to August 4th. The reason for her withdrawal is that it is compulsory for women players to wear a hijab (or headscarf) if they are playing in the tournament.

“I feel wearing a headscarf is violative of my human rights. There is no place for such an enforceable rule, especially while playing sports. In sports, there is no place for religious or cultural dress codes. I completely respect people who would like to wear a hijab, but how can you enforce it?” asks Soumya, who is clearly upset at missing out on such a huge opportunity to represent her country. “I am definitely very sad that I missed this opportunity. Especially because these Asian events are qualifying events for the world level tournaments. I felt very sad and dejected and that is the reason why I decided to write about it.”

Soumya Swaminathan in a saree during the World Junior Championships in 2014 held in Pune | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Soumya had played in 2011 in Iran when she was 22 years old and had worn a headscarf.

“When I played in 2011 that was my first experience as an adult. I learnt something from that experience and the moment I came back home, I made a decision. I knew that at some point there would be an important tournament that will be held in Iran for which I could qualify and that’s when I decided that I won’t play there if a rule to wear the headscarf is implemented”.

Soumya Swaminathan is supported by Indian Oil and has been the Indian National Champion in 2011 | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Hailing from Pune, 29-year-old Soumya has studied law. “In 2011 I was a law student and that is the reason why I thought about it in this way. Of course, my personal values also helped me to think in this direction, but my legal background did make a difference.”

This is not for the first time that we see a chess player pulling out of a tournament in Iran. In 2017, the Women’s World Championship was held in Iran and the American National Champion Nazi Paikidze took the stance that she will not play in the tournament. Asking Soumya about the incident, she said, “I also signed Nazi Paikidze’s petition when she decided not play in the Women’s World Championship in 2017 and shared it. I was completely in agreement with her decision.” 

At the Moscow Women’s tournament in 2016 | Photo: Soumya Swaminathan’s archives

What has been the stance of the All India Chess Federation (AICF) on this issue? “AICF has given me the right to choose whether I want to play this tournament or not. I am thankful to them for that. With regards to my teammates, we didn’t have a big discussion on this subject. I think every person is entitled to their opinion. And every person can make their own decisions based on their priorities.”

Soumya doesn’t blame anyone for this situation, but she does think that a positive change should be brought about. “I think the body which allots tournaments and the host federation which is holding the event should both work together to ensure that the rights and the welfare of the players are upheld. I really hope that in future things change and the players’ rights are taken care off. And I am quite positive that this will happen.”

Since Soumya made a Facebook post a lot of people have supported and applauded her decision. The number of likes on her Facebook page has also grown from 2000 to 10,000! 

“I am very pleasantly surprised and grateful about all the support that I received. I wrote this Facebook post only so that I could clear my stand and thought that if some chess players read it, it would lead to some sort of a conversation and we could hope for a positive change. But this reaction was not at all expected. I am so grateful to everyone who understood my stand and have supported me.”

Does Soumya fear that things are going out of proportion? “As far as the decision goes, I was very clear about it. I had no fear. I think you should never take any decisions in life based on fear. People have understood my decision for what it is, and this means a lot to me.”

As a final note, Soumya says, “Ideally official championships should be held in places where player's basic human rights are ensured. I respect all religions and have friends belonging to different religions here in India as well as abroad. I also follow the reasonable restrictions in place, while visiting a place of worship. But what is the place for such religious restrictions in sports? ”

Support from the Twittersphere

Here are some of the Indian celebrities that have openly supported Soumya Swaminathan:


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Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India website, the biggest chess news outlet in the country.

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