Refusing to comply with the compulsory head scarf rule in Iran, Indian woman grandmaster and former world junior girls' champion Soumya Swaminathan has asked to be excused from the Indian Women's team for the forthcoming Asian Nations Cup (Asian Team) Chess Championship 2018.
In a Facebook post on June 9, the former junior girls' champion has stated that she finds the Iranian law to be in direct violation of her basic human rights.
She later explained to TNM, the rationale behind her decision.
"I have been to Iran twice before, once when I was 10 years old and the next time as an adult in 2011. When I was a child I had to wear the hijab on and off but people were not too strict. I also didn't understand the significance of the rule then," she tells TNM.
"But when I went to participate in the Asian Championship in 2011, I had to wear it all the time - when I was eating, playing and even jogging. I found very oppressive. It is not right to force a person from another country to wear clothing with religious significance. We have to respect people's freedom of choice. What if these players come to India and we force them to leave their footwear outside every venue. We follow it at home, doesn't mean we have to foist it on people," she adds.
Soumya explains that she gave this experience a lot of thought following her return. "These tournaments are important to me and it is an honour to represent my country. So I had to be very sure of my decision," she explains. "I realised that a player should not be forced to choose between personal freedom and the chance to represent their country. But this time, I decided to stand up for my moral values. That is how I have been raised," she says.
When asked if her decision will influence other participants, Soumya says the choice is difficult for every individual. "End of the day we love chess and want to play the game. If they want to take a stand I will appreciate it and if they don't I respect their decision."
In her post on Facebook, she had called Iran's rule in direct conflict with her rights.
"I am very sorry to state that I have asked to be excused from the Indian Women's team for the forthcoming Asian Nations Cup ( Asian Team ) Chess Championship 2018, to be held at Iran from 26 July - 4 Aug 2018, as I do not wish to be forced to wear a Headscarf or Burkha," wrote the champion on her Facebook wall.
"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," she explains.
Soumya alleges that the rights and welfare of the players has not been given enough importance while allotting and organising 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," she argues. "It is a huge honour for me to represent India every time 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 sports persons 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," she added.
The post has garnered a lot of attention and Soumya has even painstaking replied to arguments against her decision. She claims that her reason for writing the post was to bring about the possibility of 'genuine change'.
"I am personally quite optimistic that things will change in the near future if players speak up. It is not something players desire of course, because it is ideal to put all our energy into our game and nowhere else, but it is also important not to keep suffering for no fault of yours and pretend it doesn't affect you," she commented.
"My basic problem is that it (head scarf) is 'forced'. Also, the way I see it there is not much difference between burkha or headscarf or a compulsory hoodie! The form is different but intent as well effect is the same," she said.
She further went on to say that she acknowledges that Iran may not grant her the same freedom that a democracy like India does and that is why she does not want to participate in the country's tournament when her rights are in conflict with the country's laws.
Over the last year, women in Iran too have been actively fighting against the mandatory hijab law. Women have been arrested for flouting the law in the country.
Soumya has received tremendous support for her decision. Grand master and chess coach RB Ramesh told TNM that this is the first time an Indian chess player had taken such a call.
"I respect her decision and every individual has the right to handle this matter the way they want to," he says. "Women from other countries have done this in the past but this a first from Indian women in chess," he adds.
Back in October 2016, Olympian Heena Sidhu also had pulled out from the Asian Air Gun Shooting Championships which was being held in Iran at the time for the same reason following a rule made that all female competitors had to comply with the compulsory hijab rule to take part in the event. This was the second occasion on which Heena had pulled out of an event held in Iran. The first being in 2013 when Iran was at the time again hosting the Asian Air Gun Shooting Championships.