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"Forced to wear a headscarf is violative of my human rights" - Interview with Soumya Swaminathan

by Sagar Shah - 16/06/2018

“Ideally Official Tournaments should be held in places where player's basic human rights are ensured”, says WGM Soumya Swaminathan after withdrawing from the Asian Nations Cup 2018 due to compulsory rule of wearing a hijab during the tournament. The Asian Nations Cup will be held from the 27th of July to 4th of August 2018 in Hamadan, Iran. Soumya has refused to travel to the tournament as she thinks that being forced to wear the hijab violates her human rights. This stand by Soumya which started as a small Facebook post has snowballed into all the leading newspapers and websites covering it. ChessBase India spoke with Soumya and lets you know all that is on her mind.

One of India’s finest woman chess players, former World Junior Champion, former Commonwealth Champion and Woman Grandmaster Soumya Swaminathan has decided to pull out of the Asian Nations Cup 2018 that will be held in Iran from the 27th of July to 4th August 2018. The reason for her withdrawal is that it is compulsory for women players to wear a hijab/headscarf if they are playing in the tournament.

Soumya Swaminathan at the Aeroflot Open 2016 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

“I feel that being forced to wear a headscarf during the tournament is violation of my human rights. There is no place for such an enforceable rule, especially while playing sports. In sports there is no place for religious or cultural dress codes. I completely respect people who would like to wear a hijab, but how can you enforce it?” asks Soumya, who is clearly upset at missing out on such a huge opportunity to represent her country. “I am definitely quite upset at being unable to represent my country despite being selected. Any opportunity to represent my country is a huge honour. To have to opt out as the only way to protect my basic rights seemed very unfair and that's why I decided to write about it.”

Soumya Swaminathan in a saree during the World Junior Championship in 2014 held in Pune | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Soumya had played in 2011 in Iran when she was 22 years old and had worn a headscarf. “When I played in 2011 that was my first experience as an adult. From the moment I entered Iran till the time I left the country I had to wear the headscarf at all times in public spaces. While playing, eating , jogging. Basically at all times I was outside my room. I couldn't do much about it while I was there but after I came back home I gave it a serious thought and decided to value my freedom much more. I knew that at some point there could be an important tournament in Iran for which I could qualify and I decided that I won’t play there if this rule for compulsory headscarf would be still implemented on the players."

Soumya is supported by Indian Oil and has been the Indian National Champion in 2011 | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Hailing from Pune, 29-year-old Soumya has studied law. “In 2011 I was a law student and that is the reason why I thought about it in this way. Of course, my personal values also helped me to think in this direction, but my legal background did make a difference.”


This is not for the first time that we see a chess player pulling out of a tournament that is being held in Iran. In 2017, the Women’s World Championship was held in Iran and the American National Champion Nazi Paikidze took a stance that she will not play in the tournament. Asking Soumya about the incident, she said, “I also signed Nazi Paikidze’s petition when she decided not play in the Women’s World Championship in 2017 and shared it. I fully supported her decision.”

At the Moscow Women’s tournament in 2016 | Photo: Soumya Swaminathan’s archives

What has been the stance of the All India Chess Federation (AICF) on this issue? “AICF has given me the right to choose whether I want to play this tournament or not. I am thankful to them for that. With regards to my team mates, we didn’t have a big discussion on this subject. I think every person is entitled to their opinion. And every person can make their own decisions based on their priorities.”


Soumya doesn’t blame anyone for this situation, but she does think that a positive change should be brought about. “I think the body which allots tournaments and the host federation which is holding the event should both work together to ensure that the rights and the welfare of the players are upheld. I really hope that in future things change and the players’ rights are taken care off. And I am quite positive that this will happen.”


Since Soumya made a Facebook post a lot of people have supported and applauded her decision. The number of likes on her Facebook page has also grown from 2000 to 10000!

“I am very pleasantly surprised and grateful about all the support that I received. I wrote this Facebook post only so that I could clear my stand and thought that if some chess players read it, it would lead to some sort of a conversation and we could hope for a positive change. But this reaction was not at all expected. I am so grateful to everyone who understood my stand and have supported me.”

Does Soumya fear that things are going out of proportion? “As far as the decision goes, I was very clear about it. I had no fear. I think you should never take any decisions in life based on fear. People have understood my decision for what it is, and this means a lot to me.”

With the Indian jacket at the World Olympiad

As a final note Soumya says, “Ideally official championships should be held in places where player's basic human rights are ensured. I respect all religions and have friends belonging to different religions here in India as well as abroad. I also follow the reasonable restrictions in place, while visiting a place of worship. But what is the place for such religious restrictions in Sports? ”


Soumya's stand has earned her support from many Indian celebrities and famous personalities. Here are a few tweets:





Firstpost and ChessBase India have collaborated to bring you extensive and detailed coverage of the chess scene in India and internationally.

This interview was first published on the Firstpost website on 15th June 2018. You can read the entire interview here.





Related links:

India chess player quits Iran tournament over headscarf rule

An Indian chess champ pulls out of a competition in Iran because of its mandatory headscarf rule

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