Chess

‘Religion and sport cannot be mixed’: Chess player Soumya explains decision to boycott Iran event

The 29-year-old Woman Grandmaster, who is also a former junior world champion, opted out of the Asian Team Chess championship.

Chess player Soumya Swaminathan has been left a bit shaken by the storm triggered by her pullout from a tournament in Iran over the issue of compulsory headscarf but remains firm in her belief that religious diktats should not extend beyond places of worship.

The 29-year-old Woman Grandmaster, who is also a former junior world champion, opted out of the Asian Team Chess championship after she found out about the organisers’ instruction of ‘compulsory headscarf’.

Her Facebook post, explaining the decision, has generated attention in the media and the-soft spoken law and commerce graduate is struggling to come to terms with it.

“I am feeling bad that I am not able to answer properly. I am unable to handle it,” she said when contacted by PTI for a comment, surprised at the attention her decision has evoked.

“It was a personal decision and I have nothing more to add to it. I believe in all religions and follow their rules but you can’t force it outside religious places,” she explained.

Citing the practice of leaving footwear outside while visiting a temple, Soumya said just as the practice cannot be enforced beyond that religious zone, headscarves should not be forced on players while competing in a tournament.

“When we go to a temple we leave our footwear outside out of respect. It is part of our culture. But can you make it compulsory in entire India outside temples? How will it work?” she asked.

“Religion and sport cannot be mixed. No sporting field should have space for religious instructions,” she added.

The Asian Nations Cup (Asian Team) Chess Championship is to be held in Iran from July 26 to August 4.

Her original post on Facebook read:

“I do not wish to be forced to wear a Headscarf or Burkha. I find the Iranian law of compulsory Headscarf to be in direct violation of my basic Human Rights including my right to freedom of expression, and right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It seems that under the present circumstances, the only way for me to protect my rights is not to go to Iran.

I am very disappointed to see that player’s rights and welfare are given such less importance while allotting and/or organising official championships. I understand the organisers expecting us to wear our National Team Dress or Formals or Sporting attire for our games during official championships, but surely there is no place for an enforceable religious dress code in Sports.

It is a huge honour for me to represent India everytime I am selected in the National Team and I deeply regret that I will be unable to participate in such an important championship. While we sportspersons are willing to make several adjustments for the sake of our sport, always giving it top priority in our life, some things simply cannot be compromised.”

Under the Iranian law, women can only show their face, hands and feet in public and are supposed to wear only modest colours.

She is not the first Indian athlete to pull out from an event in Iran owing the diktat. Commonwealth Games gold medal winning shooter Heena Sidhu had also decided against competing in that country, citing the same reason. She backed Saumya’s decision on social media as well.

In 2016, US chess champion Nazi Paikidze-Barnes boycotted the world championship in Tehran after also refusing to wear the hijab.

In 2017 the Iranian Chess Federation banned Dorsa Derakhshani for attending competitions abroad without wearing the headscarf.

She now plays for the United States.

Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran has required women to wear the Islamic headscarf in public places.

Under Iranian law, women can only show their face, hands and feet in public and are supposed to wear only modest colours.

Over the years, women have pushed back the boundaries of the law, with many, particularly in the capital, wearing loose, brightly coloured headscarves far back on their heads.

But they still risk fines and even lashings from “morality police” if they go too far.

With PTI and AFP inputs

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