A world chess champion’s stand against Saudi Arabia’s misogyny will cost her two titles

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s PR project isn’t working out.
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s PR project isn’t working out.
Image: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed
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World chess organizing body FIDE thought it had achieved a breakthrough. In November, FIDE said there would be ”no need to wear a hijab or abaya” during the 2017 World Chess Championship being held in Saudi Arabia, “a first for any sporting event” in the country.

The alternative? Women would be required to wear high-necked white blouses with black or blue trousers.

That didn’t fly with Anna Muzychuk, a Ukrainian chess grandmaster who announced in November that she would boycott the tournament—losing her two world titles in the process.

“In a few days I am going to lose two World Champion titles – one by one,” Muzychuk wrote on Facebook on Dec. 23. “Just because I decided not to go to Saudi Arabia. Not to play by someone’s rules, not to wear abaya, not to be accompanied getting outside, and altogether not to feel myself a secondary creature. Exactly one year ago I won these two titles and was about the happiest person in the chess world, but this time I feel really bad. I am ready to stand for my principles and skip the event, where in five days I was expected to earn more than I do in a dozen of events combined.” 

Anna Muzychuk, double women’s #chess champion boycotts chess games in Saudi Arabia over #hijab rules: “Everything has its limits and #headscarves in #Iran was more than enough!”

— RadioFarda (@RadioFarda_Eng) November 17, 2017

Muzychuk, whose sister and fellow grandmaster Mariya will also skip the tournament, has been documenting her opposition for months. “First Iran, then Saudi Arabia.. wondering where the next Women’s World Championships will be organized,” she wrote in a November post (the women’s championships were held in Tehran in February). “Everything has its limits and headscarves in Iran was more than enough.”

Saudi Arabia wanted to host the World Chess Championships to show how it’s opening up under crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, but the PR move has rather backfired, instead revealing how restrictive the country remains. The only other global headline about the tournament involved the Israeli team’s inability to compete, because Saudi Arabia refused them visas (paywall).

The Saudis reportedly paid $1.5 million—big money in chess terms—to host the tournament. According to FIDE, that includes a 350% increase in prize funds. The winner of the Open—which is open to both genders but dominated by men—will net $250,000. The women’s tournament winner will take home $80,000.