Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, an American chess player, announced this month that she will boycott the World Chess Championships in Iran in February 2017 because female participants will be required by local law to wear the hijab.
She has received widespread praise from Western media organizations for her stance. But while Paikidze-Barnes' campaign for women's rights in Iran is getting celebratory acknowledgment, the efforts of local Iranian feminist activists — who risk their lives and sometimes face violent consequences for similar protests — have been largely absent from the Western media spotlight, critics say.
Dr. Fatemeh Keshavarz, the Roshan Institute Chair in Persian Studies at the University of Maryland — College Park, told Mic the coverage praising Paikidze-Barnes' boycott disempowers, rather than empowers, Iranian women.
"Besides the fact that Muslim women do have agency themselves, the main trouble with this narrative is that it treats these women like children and becomes an instrument of disempowering them," Keshavarz said.
In reality, Iranian women have been at the forefront of combatting sexist discriminatory laws against their government, and made extraordinary progress doing so.
Masih Alinejad, a journalist living in exile in New York City, is one of many activists who've challenged Iran's hijab law. Two years ago, Alinejad created an online activism campaign, My Stealthy Freedom, prompting Iranian women to post photos of themselves unveiled in public on their social media accounts. Earlier this year, she created another social media campaign where men posted photos of themselves wearing the hijab to mock the misogynist law.
Narges Mohammadi, a prominent 44-year-old human rights attorney in Iran, was sentenced to a 16-year prison sentence on Sept. 28 for her women's rights activism — a risk Paikidze-Barnes, a non-Iranian, does not have to fear.
Alinejad and Mohammadi are just two of the many women's rights activist working in the Islamic Republic, but who haven't gotten half the recognition.
Keshavarz, for her part, fundamentally disagrees with Paikidze-Barnes' boycott. The Iranian-American academic says the protest will deny Westerners the opportunity to view Iranian women as individuals with their own agency, not waifs who need saving.
"Iranian and other Muslim women have to be heard directly," Keshavarz said. "Unless their own voices are heard and appreciated, what we know about them will remain second hand, diluted and often misrepresented and misunderstood. Boycotting an event that will recognize the abilities of the Iranian women and uplift them — in the name of supporting these women — is quite ironic to say the least."
According to Keshavarz, there's a white savior complex narrative inherent to Paikidze-Barnes' boycott that permeates the media airwaves and leaves Iranian-women in a deprived position.
"The savior narrative is frightfully ignorant about the diversity of Muslim women, their abilities, and their achievements," she said. "You see, if you like to save a person or group, they need to stay helpless for you not to lose your savior status."
To Keshavarz's point, there's a standard Western media narrative which gets pushed when the topic of the hijab is discussed. We often end up reducing Muslim women to little more than the piece of fabric on their heads.
And by perpetuating this narrative, it's easy to miss that Muslim women are far more complex than that. In their stead, we end up giving much of the progressive credit to Western women who make stands without having to risk or jeopardize much to make similar political statements.
Such was the case with Michelle Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia in 2015. During a presidential visit to the Kingdom, Obama ditched the headscarf and was hailed as a hero for women's rights in the country — despite the fact she's not legally obligated to adhere to the religious law as an American citizen.
The media coverage on Paikidze-Barnes' boycott is not much different. The chess player is treated as an emblem for women's rights in the Middle East while Iranian women — who are already making strides there — are used as political pawns for the white savior complex.