Soumya Swaminathan withdraws from Iranian Chess tournament, Transgenders to fight Pakistan elections

Gender discourse in Islamic states: Two case studies.

Pinak Pani DattaPinak Pani Datta | Updated: 12-12-2019 16:33 IST | Created: 13-06-2018 23:40 IST
Soumya Swaminathan withdraws from Iranian Chess tournament, Transgenders to fight Pakistan elections
Soumya is a Woman Grandmaster (2008), World Junior Champion (2009), and Common Wealth Women's Gold medalist (2012) (Image Credit: Flickr)
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Soumya Swaminathan, the Indian grandmaster and Commonwealth Gold (2012) medallist has decided to withdraw from the Asian Nations Cup Chess Championship 2018 which is to be held in Hamadan, Iran from July 26 to August 4 this year. In a Facebook post she has criticised the Islamic nation's hijab policy of public appearance.

She said, "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."

She has also put the organisers under the scanner, "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."

This is not a new incident in Iran, there are reported cases where other women sportspersons have boycotted championships because of the hijab law. The Iranian Chess Federation had also banned chess champion Dorsa Derakhshani for attending a championship without a hijab. She later played from the US side.

The issue is very subjective yet sensitive. Even though it is a law in Iran, in the general discourse, it stands against the basic tenets of gender equality and human rights.

"The Hijab has an important place in the power dynamic between society and the ruling Iranian regime. During the revolution in 1978-79, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the hijab became a symbol of resistance and protest against the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah. The Pahlavi regime of the Shah and his predecessor had attempted to modernise the country, but its policies clashed with the religious values of a large part of the population." says Moujan Mirdamadi, a Ph.D. Candidate at the Lancaster University.

She further explains, "Publicly wearing a hijab became a symbol of protest and solidarity against the monarchy, regardless of how religious a woman was. But wearing a veil was not compulsory for protesters, neither was making it so a demand driving the revolution."

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, during the Iran-Iraq war, the new regime imposed strict domestic laws and in 1985 the Hijab law was imposed regardless of their religious beliefs. The Hijab was a symbol for the Islamic theocratic regime to implement their strict religious ideology. A moral police were also installed to monitor the public appearances of teenagers and young people in the country.

However, early this year, Iranian women have gone on a resistance against the Islamic regime and started breaking the Hijab Law by pulling off their headscarves in some of the busiest public squares and using them as flags. Even though the protest is done in guerrilla mode, the Iran government has responded by arresting at least 29 women. "The Iranian police announced in 2014 that they've warned, arrested or sent to court nearly 3.6 million women because of having bad hijab, so these arrests are not new, if people are protesting it's exactly because of such a crackdown," Masih Alinejad, a US-based journalist and activist told The Guardian.

A woman has taken her hijab to show her protest. (Image Credit: Twitter)

Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran's vice president for women's affairs, however, defended the hijab law by saying that it is a "social regulation" and not wearing it amounts to public nudity. "There is no city in the world where you can walk naked in the streets and you won't be approached by a particular regulatory body," she said in a press conference.

Soumya's public statement comes at a time when another Islamic regime, Pakistan, became one of the first countries to let the transgender contest elections. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) act was passed by a majority in the National Assembly in Islamabad last month. It granted basic rights for the transgender people and bans discrimination against them by employers and business owners. It also allows transgender people to self-identify as male, female or a "third sex" on official documents, such as passports or driver's licenses and outlaws harassment in public places or at home.

The makers of Pakistan dreamt of making a "New Medina". After years of the bumpy ride between maintaining a democracy and being a failed state, the south Asian state passed a historic law which set the standard for the world to look up to. Mehlab Jameel is an activist in Lahore, Pakistan, who helped write the bill. "I heard about this yesterday morning and I was in a state of shock because I never thought something like this could happen within my own life in Pakistan," she told National Public Radio. "This kind of development is not only unprecedented in Pakistani history, but it's one of the most progressive laws in the whole world."

As a result of this effort, thirteen members of the transgender community will be contesting the July 25 elections on various seats across Pakistan. According to a Dawn report, two transgender leaders – Nayab Ali and Lubna Lal – will contest on Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Gulalai (PTI-G) tickets, while the remaining 11 candidates will run as independents.

In 2009, Pakistan became one of the first countries in the world to legally recognise a third sex, allowing transgenders to obtain identity cards. They number at least half a million people in the country, according to several studies, but their representation in politics and many other spheres of life remains minimal as they are restricted to very few job roles - with many forced to earn their living by begging and dancing.

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