In the first place, 18-year-old Dorsa Derakhshani received her ban for appearing at the 2017 Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival without wearing the Islamic head covering that is legally required of all women and girls in Iran. Dorsa and her brother Borna Derakhshani both entered the event independently and not as formal representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Dorsa does not currently reside in Iran but is studying in Spain. Nevertheless, Iranian officials determined that her failure to wear a veil in a foreign-based tournament was damaging to “Iranian national interests.”
It has been widely reported that Iran is in the midst of efforts to further tighten its restrictions on women’s rights, for instance by increasing the enforcement of the Islamic dress code and empowering civilian militias to confront women over “mal-veiling.” The legal scholar Jonathan Turley connected the case of Dorsa Derakhshani to an incident of this kind of enforcement that took place at roughly the same time.
The incident involved a 14-year-old girl who was celebrating her birthday with friends on the streets of Tehran when agents of the Iranian morality police grabbed her, beat her, and attempted to force her into a van. As she reported to the social media group for Iranian women’s rights, My Stealthy Freedom, the only reason for the confrontation was the fact that she was wearing ripped jeans.
The website of The Sun newspaper posted pictures both of the jeans in question and of the marks that were left on the young girl’s face and neck by the authorities who forced her to sign a pledge to never wear such clothing again, before letting her go.
Incidents like these have predictably spurred reactions from international activists and from progressive-minded Iranians. If there was any sort of political motive to Dorsa Derakhshani’s decision to eschew the veil at the Gibraltar tournament, she is not the first international chess player to publicly protest Iran’s treatment of women.
Perhaps coincidentally, the US Herald posted an article this week calling renewed attention to Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, an American female chess champion who publicly announced that she would boycott an international tournament after the International Chess Federation (FIDE) announced that it was to take place in Iran. FIDE declared that all female participants would have to wear head coverings in line with Iranian law, but Paikidze-Barned determined that she would prefer to give up her chance at a 100,000 dollar prize rather than join in legitimizing the forced veiling laws.
“I think it’s unacceptable to host a WOMEN’S World Championship in a place where women do not have basic fundamental rights and are treated as second-class citizens,” she said in a post on Instagram.
For its part, the US Herald seized upon this issue to demand an answer to the question of why FIDE chose Iran as a host, considering that it is “a regime that sponsors international terrorism and abuses human rights.” This question demonstrates that international chess competitions are not unique in their ability to court controversy over the demands that Iran places upon players of all nations. Many have urged the international soccer and volleyball federations, for instance, to cease considering Iran as a host or to suspend its membership until such time as it lifts the ban on female attendance at its stadiums.
A report was recently published concerning a personal account from one of the young Iranian women who has successfully snuck into sporting events in defiance of this ban. As well as simply declaring the ban to be “medieval” and “stupid,” the author points out that the regime’s declared rationales for the ban can be easily disproven.
Iranian authorities separate men and women in all public places but place particular emphasis on sporting events because they claim that women would be exposed to a hostile environment and would further inflame male passions. But the author of the article indicates that when her gender came to be known by men seated around her, they became noticeably more polite and less prone to aggression or cursing.
However, neither anecdotal evidence nor international pressure is likely to dislodge the Iranian authorities from their hardline points of view. And the ban handed down against 15-year-old Borna Derakhshani is indicative of another aspect of this hardline view. The young chess player was placed on the same blacklist as his sister because, at the same event, he played a match against a fellow competitor who is from Israel.
Another report provided a detailed description of the basis of this ban, and its history. It pointed out that Ali Akbar Velayati, then the foreign minister of Iran and now the leading foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei, arbitrarily ordered a harsh reprimand for wrestling competitors who competed against Israeli opponents in the 1980s. This effectively set in motion a policy that is enforced to this day, across all sporting events.
As with the ban on women in stadiums, this sort of discrimination is against the rules of international governing bodies, but some of them have looked the other way as Iranian competitors used false claims of injury or other excuses to avoid competing against Israelis. Some, on the other hand, have defied the restriction, but have faced reprisals from the regime, which considers the ban to extend even to Iranian athletes appearing in the same photograph as Israelis.
If anything, the issuance of a ban on Borna Darakhshani for a match played independently, far from Iranian soil suggests that the regime is attempting to intensify these sorts of restrictions alongside the restrictions on women’s dress. What’s more, the incident occurred around the same time that Iran was holding its annual two-day conference on opposition to the state of Israel, wherein Khamenei reportedly issued some of the most vitriolic statements to be heard at that conference in years.