News & Current Affairs

Instagram Post By Divya Deshmukh Sparks Sexism Conversation in Chess

By Azeezat Okunlola | Feb 12, 2024

By sharing her story on Instagram, an 18-year-old chess player from India has started a conversation on how people see women in the sport.


According to Divya Deshmukh, an International Master (the second-highest chess title), a lot of the comments she gets on her chess videos are focused on her looks rather than her chess skills.


"It's a sad truth that when women play chess, [people] often overlook how good they actually are… and every irrelevant thing is focused on," she wrote, adding that she had wanted to address the issue "for a while".


Having complained about the spectators' behaviour throughout the whole Tata Steel Chess tournament in the Netherlands, Deshmukh put out the message on social media after the event. They "remain committed to promoting women in chess and ensuring a safe and equal sporting environment," the event organisers said in a subsequent statement in support of her.


As one of the few popular activities where men and women often play against each other, chess remains an unspoken topic when it comes to discussing sexism. Experts agree that Deshmukh's piece has sparked an important discussion on how chess fans and male players treat female players.


According to Deshmukh's interview with the BBC, she began getting hateful remarks about her appearance, speech, and clothing when she was fourteen years old. "It makes me sad that people don't pay the same kind of attention to my chess skills," she remarked.


Many have commented in her favour, pointing out that even harmless comments and jokes are sometimes "laced with sexist attitudes" and that it's not uncommon for people to post sexually suggestive comments beneath videos of female players.


The rise of online tournaments and live streaming has made female chess players more susceptible to sexist remarks from the mostly male audience, according to Susan Ninan, a sports journalist who has written extensively on the subject.


She elaborates by saying that this kind of bullying reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and undermines the self-esteem of young women chess players.


Chess is an incredibly male-dominated sport. Women account for a meagre 10% of licenced players worldwide, with the disparity widening at the highest levels of the game, according to FIDE. Consider that out of India's 84 grandmasters, only three are female.


This disparity, according to chess experts and female players, is a result of prejudices and sexism that prevent women and girls from participating fully in the sport.


"There's this common misconception that men are 'wired differently' and are hence, inherently better at chess," says Ms Ninan, who goes on to suggest that views like these are reinforced online, adding fuel to the fire of preexisting socio-cultural prejudices against women's intelligence.


A study carried out by researchers at New York University interviewed approximately 300 parents and mentors, with 90% of them being male. The majority of these individuals held the belief that girls have less chess potential than boys and are more prone to giving up on the sport because of their lack of ability.


The effects of such prejudices have been felt directly by chess player and coach Nandhini Saripalli. According to her, her chess career suffered due to a lack of support compared to her male competitors.


And now she's claiming that the lack of faith in women's chess abilities is hurting her coaching career. "Parents want their children to be mentored by a male coach because they feel that male players are more talented," she explained.


According to Koneru Humpy, a top chess player from India who began her career in the 1990s, she remembers competing in open tournaments as the only female player. The competition was often significantly more skilled, making it much more difficult to win than women's-only events.


"Men wouldn't like losing to me because I'm a woman," she says and adds that today's crop of male players are different as they regularly train and play against their female peers."


"But it will take more time for women players to wield the same amount of influence on and off the chessboard as their male counterparts. One way to alter this power imbalance is to remove socio-cultural barriers that prevent women's participation in chess at the entry-level."


"Once there are more female players, there will be more of them in the top levels of the sport," says Humpy, adding that this will change prevailing perceptions.


Another strategy to attract more female chess players is to host more competitions just for female players.


"The more women play chess, the more claim they have over the sport," she added.