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:

See also

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 and is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India website, the biggest chess news outlet in the country.
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Stupido Stupido 6/20/2018 02:43
@iluhaloo - Get your facts straight: the veil is not prohibited in France and muslim players can wear it in any chess event if they want, or in the streets. Niqabs are prohibited like full-face hoods for men for safety reasons, because we are subject to terrorist attacks mind you.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 6/20/2018 12:14
Islam oppresses women, Soumya is not only fighting for her own rights, but for all the women oppressed by Islam. Of course, some of them will be brainwashed enough to actually want to wear a hijab or niqab or burqa, but all of those wearings are extremely offending to both men and women.

To men they are saying that they are perverts, who cannot control their sexual desires if they see the hair of a woman.

To women they are saying that they are responsible for being raped if their hair is seen.

Forcing women to wear those therefore cannot be equal than banning them. Forcing them to wear it is forcing them to accept submission to the rules of Islam. Banning them is the opposition to such offensive rulings.
Hamsuns Hamsuns 6/20/2018 12:09
She's not a politician - it's about her personal integrity and feeling that her basic human rights as a person are violated. I admire her for this while at the same time I'm disgusted by the fascist regimes of country's you stated.
Let's respect miss Swaminatham for her stance and integrity
shahram48 shahram48 6/20/2018 05:43
What if the tournament was held in baby-snatching USA or land-grabbing Israel? Would she stand up in the defense of human rights as well? I doubt that.
macauley macauley 6/20/2018 12:08
@fgkdjlkag - My point was specifically that "iluhaloo" was making an exaggerated analogy. Setting aside the merits of any particular ban, what limited bans there have been of the burqa/niqab in France (e.g. schools, public spaces) and Denmark (in public), A) Have been upheld by the European court of human rights, and B) haven't affected any chess players at all (that I'm aware of) and certainly not on the level of a continental championship. Laws in the Netherlands and Germany (other countries mentioned) remain more liberal. The FIDE Handbook is not much help here. See for instance: https://en.chessbase.com/post/the-kovalyov-report-editorial
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 6/19/2018 10:04
@iluhaloo, I believe the proscribing of the niqab and burka in western countries is because of security, not democracy.

@macauley, I fail to see how showing an example is relevant. Were the Nazi Paikidze and Soumya Swaminathan examples unimportant until they happened? Isn't it important to discuss and work out these issues in advance, to prevent unfortunate situations? Take the FIDE handbook as an example. There are a plethora of rules that have never been applied. The point is to be able to anticipate all circumstances.

I find @iluhaloo's reasoning compelling. Surely there are individuals that are required by religion to wear the niqab/burka, who would not be able to compete in the western countries that prohibit it. To require a country not to have any possible conflicts with all religions would be a nightmare to implement. Consequently, maybe Iran should be able to host such tournaments. Although the "world" championship that excluded Israeli players was absolutely unacceptable, and Iran should never have been allowed to host it without assurances from the government and a clear plan to allow Israeli players.
iluhaloo iluhaloo 6/19/2018 07:42
So what is your post about anyway? Something like “...yeah, I don‘t like what you are saying....but hey, maybe you are not informed well...maybe you are just mean...I dunno....”
Either say something or just do not post at all, you are waisting the bandwidrh.
Bluehouse Bluehouse 6/19/2018 06:46
This is another signal of FIDE's moral and fiscal corruption. Does anyone doubt the reason that FIDE tolerates this behavior from Iran? Why should FIDE allow events to be scheduled in a country that does this to women chess players? We need a new world chess organization. Or no world chess organization at all -- what, after all, is the point of having one?
Bluehouse Bluehouse 6/19/2018 06:40
God bless and keep her. It is about time the chess world stood up to this. If Iran, or some similar autocracy, insists on imposing their religious standards on guests of their country in sporting events, then they should forfeit the right to host such events.
shatranjian shatranjian 6/19/2018 05:56
I admire Soumya from inside iran as an iranian people and a muslim. Thanks soumaya.
hansj hansj 6/19/2018 01:41
Mr. Checkravuh claims: "you cannot change an entire civilization, the Persian ..."

Compulsory wearing of a scarf has nothing to do with Persian civilization; it is Islam. I remember when Iran was not governed by fanatic women hating priests. Then women could dress as they liked. And they did!

This is religious tyranny, not Persian civilization.

Of course Soumya Swaminathan is not trying to overthrow the islamic regime - but she certainly will not submit to this oppression of women.
vishyvishy vishyvishy 6/19/2018 01:08
Such Antiques show she doesn't have true sporting spirit. She would not have converted to Muslim by wearing a simple and beautiful Hijab. Sporting People should love to mingle with the different cultures they visit. Otherwise, she should not wear sweaters in Moscow. remain in Saree everywhere. or Better get a Standard Uniform where there should be written Women Freedom everywhere for her, approve it from FIDE and organizers and wear that everywhere... This is just publicity stunt and nothing more and shows no respect foreign cultures and practices over her arrogance about Personal Freedom stuff.
fons3 fons3 6/19/2018 11:25
@ NoSystem: No it's not, that honor goes to Saudi Arabia. You're just repeating US propaganda, but to properly understand this you'll have to read alternative media.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 6/19/2018 11:17
Great decision Soumya! You are bravely standing up not only for your rights, but for the rights of women oppressed by the patriarchy in Islamic countries as well.
macauley macauley 6/19/2018 10:25
@iluhaloo - You are constructing a straw man. As "Fact_checker" notes, you seem to be also mischaracterizing (whether accidentally or deliberately) the laws in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria (the countries you mention). This might be worth debating if you can offer a real example: A female player who wears burqa/niqab and declines an invitation to participate in a tournament abroad on the basis of a dress code requiring that it not be worn. I'm not aware of such a case, but it could also be an interesting story.
iluhaloo iluhaloo 6/19/2018 09:19
Since you are going to some length to make a point, but failed to do so, let’s take you argument now that burqa is banned (covering the whole body and head and face, except for the eyes). This is banned, right? You are saying it yourself.
Here we go again: some woman somwhere is playing chess, and this is what she wants to wear. Again, how is she going to play chess in Europe in any of those countries? And why Iran should be punished for forcing one, and France, Holland, Germany and Austria are nice democratic countries when they are forcing the some, just the opposite side of it? Both sides are wrong, but as usually you fail to see the other side as being wrong as well.
Checkravuh Checkravuh 6/19/2018 04:58
I think Soumya was wrong. She should not have disrespected the Iranians.. Sure she is right in her way, but to do this at the cost of what? A few chess games? .. and earn international 'fame' is nonsense.. Sorry Soumya.. you cannot change an entire civilization, the Persian which btw is a great civilisation.
Dont expect to get invited again... Best wishes to you,Soumya.
Fact_checker Fact_checker 6/19/2018 04:23
"let’s suppose there is an Iranian chess player, and the tournament is in France, where veils are banned...what happens then?"

Untrue. In France, veils are banned in primary and secondary public funded schools. Not in the public space.


Countries that actually banned the hijab in all public space in the past are majority Muslim countries: Tunisia, Turkey and this is being gradually lifted there as well.

What is banned in public in the countries you mention is the full covering of the face, and the burqa/niqab wear (covering the whole body except for the eyes), not the headscarf, and this distinction is important, rendering your argument irrelevant.

NoSystem NoSystem 6/19/2018 03:08
This would have been a good article if they had found the space to make mention of the minor little quibble that Iran is the largest state sponsor of terrorism on the globe.
vanhelsing vanhelsing 6/19/2018 02:02
Good move. If you don't like the laws, don't be there.
iluhaloo iluhaloo 6/19/2018 12:54
Cheap article, geared toward getting some traction due to the rise of right-wingers in EU, who just love to read crap like this. Judging by the comments, it seems it is just what is happening.
My two cents on the issue at stake: let’s suppose there is an Iranian chess player, and the tournament is in France, where veils are banned...what happens then? Should we then try not to have tournaments in France, since not everybody could participate? If yes, then add Holland, Germany and Austria as well, as they have similar laws. Where does it really end?
It is said how people are becoming more and more xenophobic each and every year, instead of for humanity to go in another direction, toward prosperity.
Michael Jones Michael Jones 6/19/2018 12:40
"Here are some of the Indian celebrities that have openly supported Soumya Swaminathan" - you do realise that "Sir Ravindra Jadeja" is a parody account, right?
tankerman tankerman 6/19/2018 12:39
Bravo !!!!!!!
Pionki, GROW UP
wb_munchausen wb_munchausen 6/18/2018 11:46
Good for her! I recall that Nazi Paikidze took a similar position a couple of years ago for the same reason. The lack of women's rights in Iran needs called out on the carpet, and this is a good step in that direction.
Setne007 Setne007 6/18/2018 11:16
Pionki Pionki 6/18/2018 10:36
I can understand what this young lady wants to achieve, but I fail
to see a link between human rights and a dress code, in a world where people's rights are violated in most horrible ways, where people have been born in a war and know nothing but war, where people starve in fake democracies, and families are separated for ever. Sorry, girl, you're still young.
identity777 identity777 6/18/2018 09:37
Is Vishy Anand a descendant of King Solomon?
identity777 identity777 6/18/2018 09:35
She is just right, well done.
CostaMaison3 CostaMaison3 6/18/2018 09:32
Who is Soumya?

The best way to get attention from media is to boycott tournaments held in Iran. If Soumya participated in that tournament in Iran and won it. No body would hear or report about her.
basler88 basler88 6/18/2018 09:03
Bravo Soumya!! That's the way to go and I hope more women players will follow you. Keep up the pressure and don't let anyone tell you what to believe, to wear or to speak. See what's happen know in the USA, Russia and China.
m8in8 m8in8 6/18/2018 08:22
Good for her! Players should band together and boycott such restrictions!
Stupido Stupido 6/18/2018 07:06
Hats off to Soumya Swaminathan, and to AICF for respecting her decision.