Chess set to make a new move in Saudi

Saudi Arabia not to insist women wearing hijab during World chess championship, but choice of venue not acceptable to everyone.

Published : Nov 18, 2017 16:02 IST , KOZHIKODE

Dronavalli Harika playing at the Abu Dhabi international chess festival in August.
Dronavalli Harika playing at the Abu Dhabi international chess festival in August.

Dronavalli Harika playing at the Abu Dhabi international chess festival in August.

The winds of change blowing across Saudi Arabia can be felt in the sporting arena, too. Next month, the country will have its first ever sporting event in which no woman is required to wear a hijab (headscarf).

The event is the World rapid and blitz chess championships, to be held in Riyadh from December 26 to 30. The World chess governing body FIDE reached an agreement with the organisers about the dress code, according to which there is no need for women to wear a hijab or an abaya (a robe-like dress). Instead, women can wear dark blue or black formal trousers and high-necked blouses.

“It is a welcome move,” Dronavalli Harika, the women’s World No. 11 based in Hyderabad, told The Hindu on Friday. “I had played earlier this year at the World women’s championship in Iran, where all the players had to wear a hijab. I think this agreement by FIDE and the orgnaisers in Saudi Arabia is a positive development.”

READ: Harika: ‘I like playing in the open category’

Not every chess player is enthusiastic as Harika, though. Like Ukraine’s Anna Muzychuk, the reigning World champion in both rapid and blitz, and Jovanka Houska of England, for instance.

Muzychuk had announced on her Facebook page that she would be boycotting the Saudi event, saying that she would not be playing in Riyadh though it meant losing two World titles. “Everything has its limit and headscarves in Iran were more than enough,” she had said.

“I really don’t feel comfortable visiting a country where I would need to be accompanied by a male guardian,” Houska told a chess website.

Harika, however, doesn’t rule out the possibilities of top players like Muzychuk still competing in Riyadh. “She had written that post a week ago and FIDE’s agreement with the organisers came after that,” she said.

FIDE’s decision to award the World championship to Saudi had come in for sharp criticism from several quarters, including World No. 10 Hikaru Nakamura, president of the Association of Chess Professionals Emil Sutovsky and former president of the European Chess Union Silvio Danailov. It has also been pointed out that players from countries like Iran, Israel and Qatar might not be able to play in Saudi.

The Saudi authorities’ decision to allow women to compete in a sporting event without having to wear a hijab can of course be seen in the context of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent attempts to re-brand the country of moderate Islam. In September, the ban on women driving was lifted. And, according to reports, that was followed by women’s tournaments in basketball and football.

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