Tehran: Female Iranian chess players have hit back at calls by opponents of the country's Islamic dress code for a boycott of February's world championships in Tehran, saying the campaign hurts Iranian women.
Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran has required women to wear the Islamic headscarf in public places and US chess champion Nazí Paikidze-Barnes has said she will boycott the Tehran championships because she refuses to wear the hijab.
"This campaign against the tournament is against Iranian women and it doesn't help at all," Sara Khademalsharieh, a 19-year-old international master, told AFP.
"It's the first time we are hosting a world championship, not only in chess but (in any) sport, and I think it's very important for Iranian women to have this chance to hold such major events."
Her comments were echoed by teammate Mitra Hejazipour, a 23-year-old grandmaster.
"The hijab is not oppression. We are used to it and it's one of Iran's laws and we accept it," she said.
The US champion has launched a petition calling for the tournament to be moved.
"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," the 22-year-old Georgian-American wrote on Instagram.
Her petition has been backed by some leading figures in chess, including Nigel Short, the British coach who once trained Iran's national team.
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.
The head of Iran's chess federation, Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh, said the calls for a boycott were unreasonable.
"Everywhere in the world, there are rules on how to cover your body. There is no place in the world where people can wear nothing in public," he told AFP.
The head of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), Geoffrey Borg, expressed surprise at the boycott campaign, saying federation members had not expressed "the slightest objection" when Iran was selected as host.
"Chess players should respect the laws of countries," Borg told a Tehran press conference last week.
"The only objections have been on personal pages, for which FIDE is not responsible," Iranian media quoted him as saying.
'Don't isolate Iran'
Khademalsharieh and Hejazipour said the interests of Iranian women were better served by engagement with the world than by boycotts.
She pointed to the example of karate, in which women were previously banned from competing in the hijab.
"Now (women wearing the hijab) are allowed and they are getting some medals and I think this helps Iranian women more than isolating the country," said Khademalsharieh.
The chess world championship in Tehran is due to feature 64 players from 26 countries, including three from Iran, with the winner receiving $60,000.
So far, Paikidze-Barnes is the only selected player to announce a boycott.
"I am not anti-Islam or any other religion," the US champion wrote on Instagram. "I'm protesting... not because of Iran's religion or people, but for the government's laws that are restricting my rights as a woman."
Pahlevanzadeh said the Iranian chess federation had never faced any problem hosting previous tournaments -- including the women's Grand Prix held in Iran earlier this year.
"We have organised many tournaments for women before. Many women from Nazí's own country Georgia have joined the tournaments," he said.
"I'm sure after visiting Iran, she'll change her mind."