Women’s World Championship in Tehran

I have been back for a few days from my trip to Tehran, where the second round of the Women’s World Championship has just finished. I went as a coach for Sabina Foisor, who found herself with changed circumstances that are too personal and complex for us to mention here. Once there, she played really well, fought like a lioness and did what we had agreed in advance, which was to take a full swing at her 250-points higher rated opponent. After a good first game, where her opponent almost over-pressed, as we had suspected she might, Sabina had White in the second game and would go into the next round with a win. She played a great game up to a point, but had spent too much time and went in the wrong direction and got a bad position. At some point it was lost in one move, but she resisted and at a later point she could have entered a very fragile, but possible drawing, zone. She did not and eventually went down.

Sabina Foisor (thanks to David Llada for the photo)

Some people have been eager to criticize from far away the arrangement of the tournament.

In my opinion, it is a decently organized event. The playing hall was too hot for some players on the first day (Sabina did not feel it, quite a few others apparently did), which was fixed. The organizers were as friendly and polite as I have ever experienced at a big tournament, and the hotel was simply outstanding. It is one of the best hotels I have stayed in.

View from the Hotel

Iranians are exceptionally friendly. Their hospitality is second to none. I met a lot of new people while visiting Tehran and have no doubt I made friends for life. Going out in Tehran is interesting. The food is a challenge for a strict vegan such as myself, but not more difficult than elsewhere. The traffic is an experience. The locals apologized profusely for the twenty minutes it took to get around a roundabout. Luckily this was enough time for us to explain that we saw it as a part of the experience and enjoyed ourselves immensely. The cars were inches apart, moving aggressively for any opening in the traffic jam. Still, I looked and looked, but could not see a single car with a bump or a scratch.

Jacob and the President of the Iranian Chess Federation

There was a lot of talk about a girlcott, because of the hijab. Some players decided not to go. Some for this reason, and some for other reasons. I understand that there has been internet abuse against some players who decided not to go, as well as some abuse against some who did go. In both cases I find this absolutely appalling. Well-known feminists like Nigel Short were out with a categorical condemnation of the tournament taking place in a country where women have to wear a headscarf.

Sopiko Guramishvili (thanks to David Llada for the photo)

What interested me was the local opinion. I had debated this with Iranian Facebook friends in advance of the tournament (Facebook is blocked in Iran, but everyone is on it). Most were of the opinion that this was great for chess in Iran and also for women’s status in society. Three or more weeks of “women are intelligent” in the news… I am personally rather sceptical of absolutes and believe that a slow change is often better than a revolution or outside dictation of change.

Elshan Moradiabadi’s father on Valentine’s Day

One woman I spoke to there said that she had no plans for her life, but that she lived in a country with no plans of its own. The hijab was clearly ridiculous and everyone hates it. I had expected that politics was a touchy subject, but no one was scared. Honestly, I did not feel that people were more oppressed than in other places. The real oppression is lack of opportunities, lack of social services, bad administration and so on. I see plenty of this in Britain.

Obviously, the social structure is different than in Europe. But you will also find a different social structure in Utah. Or on the Northern Isles of Scotland. I noticed a great difference between the people I met. Some were not far from my own social values, others were more conservative. No one was impolite or unfriendly. Honestly, I did not have a single moment of discomfort there.

Should the tournament have been awarded to Iran? It is a complex question. First of all, there were no other bids at the time, only six months before the event. With FIDE’s lack of sponsorship in general, I did not think this was a bad case. In 2014 the World Championship was organized by people working directly with Vladimir Putin, the mastermind of landgrabs in Georgia and Ukraine and lately circumvention of the US election. The 2016 World Championship was in New York, but again the money seems to have come from somewhere we would prefer it did not come from.

In comparison, the championship in Iran was organized by people who live under a dictatorship, but are not responsible for it. The sponsors were local car manufactures and telecommunication companies. Yes, the ministry of sport was involved, but you have to work with the authorities you have.

I do not like hijabs. I do not find compulsion to wear it acceptable. But I also had restrictions with what I could wear. Long sleeves and trousers were necessary. In Britain, I can go topless locally in the summer, but a woman might find it questionable. Currently we have a man in the UK perpetually in jail, who insists on walking around naked. Look up the naked rambler. Does this come from religious convictions? It is not easy for me to determine. It is certainly not overt.

A friend argued that Carlsen met Putin of his own volition, while the players in this tournament were forced to wear the hijab. I find this a copout. Carlsen accepted Putin’s money and could not very well decline meeting him without embarrassing everyone at the tournament. The women could decide not to play, but like Carlsen, there were no other offers. In chess, we lack good sponsorship, but I think people should be careful about being too moralistic. Do you eat chocolate? Do you know if it is produced with slavery? A lot of chocolate is. What about your Chinese gadgets. Child labour? Do you eat meat, eggs or dairy? The lack of compassion in the animal/food industry is astounding. I do not ask that people must be pure to debate whether it is right or wrong to host a tournament in Iran or to participate in it. But some of the outpouring of strong opinions I have seen over the last six months have been so simplistic it has been painful to read. A better world is best achieved through mutual understanding, in my opinion. And it was with that philosophy I went to Tehran. And I did not regret it.

34 thoughts on “Women’s World Championship in Tehran”

  1. Thank you for your comments Jacob, it’s always interesting to hear about your travels and opinions. As an American I found it gratifying to hear that you also believe Putin interfered in our election. Unfortunately most Americans are either in denial or just don’t care.
    Keep up the great job!

  2. The compulsory wearing of a hijab is an illustration of how far society has to change before women are free to wear what they want to wear.

    Best to publicise this openly.

  3. Lucid, rational, sane. Willing to consider other ways of life and modes of thought, while disagreeing. Thank you. We could take a lesson from that here in the US.

  4. In Tennis at Wimbledon everyone was or is required to wear all white.

    My issue with making all the participants wear hijabs/scarves etc. is that some of the western women that we have become so accustomed to seeing without these adornments look quite weird with them on.

    It would be nice if more western countries would host major chess tournaments, I’m both weary and wary of always having to travel to places like Siberia, Turkey and Azerbaijan for Olympiads.

  5. Jacob- you saw footballer Dwight Yorke was refused entry to US for visiting Iran? He didn’t realise this precluded him from travelling on ESTA, meant he needed to get a visa it seems. Just wanted to make sure you’d seen given you work with Shankland…..an oldish Obama order it seems.

  6. Dwight Yorke is Trindadian I think. Trinidadians come from Trinidad I heard, anyone know where Trinidad is or what is ESTA?

  7. @Paul H
    Yes, I am aware of this. It would be hilarious if I was barred from entering based on helping a US player! But I will simply apply for a ten year visa at some point and hopefully get it without any big bother.

  8. Yes, you are right !
    Next step is the men’s candidates tournament in North Korea. every player should wear a local military uniform and be thankfull to the dictatorship. It will help to restore a better world…at least you will meet friendly people.

  9. @RYV
    I am not going into a general discussion of geopolitics here or dignifying that ridiculous comparison. I do want to repeat my point, that I prefer a tournament organised by the victims of a dictatorship than one where our players have to be props for photo ops with murderous dictators. This is the real comparison, as it is our current reality.

  10. I can take an other comparison.
    Imagine it will took place in South Africa at the time of apartheid. Do you think, that playing with segregationist rules with help to change situations from inside ?
    The point is that in Iran women are spoiled from rights and freedom. I don’t believe playing a tournament under these circumstances help women in Iran.

  11. The other important point is that fide is in really bad situation. Everything that is under fide control seems to go wrong…it is time to change

  12. I think the world championship Soccer in Quatar will definitely give human rights a boost. We can’t have all major sports events in Scandinavia…

  13. @Ray
    For sure. But in that case everyone agree that it is just a question of money. . Qatar paid..FIFA and players never argue that they will go there for human rights..they just take the money and run home.
    That is what make me ask questions . In Teheran the players who didn’t come argue that they didn’t want to play ina country where women have restricted rights and that they didn’t want to give credit to this.
    Those who get there didn’t says they will help to change anything. They just get there to play, get the glory and the money ….and then go home.

  14. @RYV
    I have not read much about people standing up for women’s right in Iran. But I have read a lot of people thinking it would be degrading for the chess players to wear the scarf.
    Comparing Iran with South Africa is a false comparison. There was a sports boycott of South Africa. This does not exist with Iran. American players took part.
    I have in 20 years seen no outrage over the plights of people living under any dictatorship regarding to chess tournaments. There was outrage over Libya because Israelis could not play.
    These are not principled moral decisions, based on compassion for others. I do not expect or demand this in any other situation than the one where you proclaim the moral high ground. This was the simple point of my post.
    I do prefer World Championship matches to take part in New York, but when the financing still comes from dodgy sources, it all comes down to moral relativism for me.

  15. @Jacob Aagaard

    As for the situation in South Africa in apartheid times:

    It would have been a great thing to have a sports event in South Africa of those days with black athlets taking part. There would not have been a boycott.

    The Iranian women players were the stars of the event and got big media coverage.
    Unfortunately they all went out in the first round, otherwise it would have been even better.

  16. More here on head covering, while overseas. And on an Iranian playing an Israeli player. Siblings.
    Can we expect an official FIDE response, I wonder. A letter comprising just three words ‘Gens una sumus’, perhaps? In the eyes of some though, this may be read through the lens of a value-free cultural relativism, alas, where anything goes.
    Realistically, the Iranian chess organizers were obliged to act, due to theocratic dictates, once such comes to their attention. FIDE though, less constrained.
    Banning children in this way does appear to cast a further shadow over the current event in Teheran, where we know hijabs are obliged for all female participants.

  17. @Jacob Aagaard

    Relativism. Yes , I understand that absolute happyness might be hard to reach, so we have To compose with what is left. If we have choice, we choose the one we think is best. If we don’t have choice (like Téhéran is the only one) we can still choose not to go if we believe this tournament is to support Iranian politic.
    I also understand that you want to to see by yourself and go for mutual understanding…. but when nothing comes from the other part, it is like closing eyes and accepting everything, no ?
    Hope next time fide will not repeat such error.

  18. @RYV
    Me going and the tournament being there are two different things. I will go there in April as well. I think me visiting any area of the world has no political significance :-).
    I do think the Iranian Federation had no choice but to act at a moment where chess is in the news there. What happens in 2-3 months will be the real test of where their hearts are at. A few months between tournaments hurts very little, but the federation have to live within the reality of a dictatorship. Time will tell. Obviously the crime was not to play without hijab, but to have her photo taken without hijab.
    One of my key points is that revolutions hardly ever work. Nor outside military interventions. They seem to end up with something worse 9/10 times. Germany and Japan in 1945 are the two clear exceptions, but in both cases the countries had to be entirely destroyed. The way European and South American dictatorships turned into free countries is the path to follow I think. So, with a country like Iran, I would want cultural integration in the world, but political isolation.
    I do feel that a number of the guys commenting on this tournament are people who are busy polishing their own ego, more than people who care about women’s rights or stuff like this. We do live in an age where extreme points of view, when shouted loud enough, gets traction. This does not mean they will lead to the best outcome. What is these guys desired outcome? Besides the…

  19. So men’s and women world championship follows completely different process. Candidates and final match for men vs World Cup event for the girls.

  20. @RYV
    it’s not “men” but “world chess championship”. Men & women qualify for the biggest event. iirc some years ago Fide or ACP investigated the possibilty of unifying the titles, but women declined in order to preserve some income. Pity, as chess is quite gendre-free imho.

  21. @Cowe
    We also have junior and senior tournaments, or tournaments defined by territories. To limit an event to only have one gender, is debatable, but we are doing the same in other areas, where the lack of a physical argument exists.

  22. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    Looking at images of Dorsa Derakhshani online, it appears Gibraltar was not the first time she has gone without the hijab. As usual, these things are more complicated than the headlines make them appear.

  23. @An Ordinary Chessplayer
    They don’t live in Iran anymore and she did not play for the team anyway, because she does not wish to wear hijab at all. I don’t know if they were thinking they would not harm the kids by this, as it has no practical importance. But of course it has been deeply unpleasant for them. It is entirely about politics and you should keep minors out of that (I know she is 18, but still).

  24. As came out today, she has been banned by her federation as has her younger brother(he had the audacity of playing the person he was paired against in an open tournament-just so happened that player was Israeli).

  25. RYV :
    So men’s and women world championship follows completely different process. Candidates and final match for men vs World Cup event for the girls.

    It comes down to money. I don’t think there is money in Women’s Chess for a multi-round event, just as there is no longer money in chess for candidates matches and a Championship match of reasonable length.

  26. Sabina just won the woman US championship. A good example of training paying of in the long run. @jacob, can you write a post with the kind of training you conducted with Sabina ?

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