LONDON– Iranian sport climber Elnaz Rekabi returned to Tehran early Wednesday after attracting global attention for competing abroad without wearing a hijab, which is mandatory for female athletes representing the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s state news agency IRNA filmed Rekabi’s arrival and briefly interviewed her at Imam Khomeini International Airport, southwest of the capital. Other videos shared online reportedly showed large crowds gathered outside to welcome the 33-year-old professional athlete home, chanting her name and calling her a “hero”.
State media footage showed Rekabi dressed in a black hoodie over a black baseball cap covering her dark hair as she entered one of the airport’s terminals, where she received flowers from a fan and then repeated to reporters a statement previously made was posted on Instagram why she competed without an Islamic headscarf at the International Federation of Sport Climbing Asian Championships in Seoul on Sunday.
“It was completely unintentional,” Rekabi said. “I was called unexpectedly and had to line up. I was busy putting on my shoes and tech gear and this resulted in me forgetting to put on the hijab I was required to wear. Then I went to the competition.”
“Fortunately, despite going through a lot of tension and stress, I returned to Iran with peace of mind,” she added. “Thank God nothing has happened so far.”
A state media reporter then said: “It was rumored that no one knew where you were for 24 or 48 hours.
Rekabi replied, “No, that didn’t happen. We returned to Iran as planned. Up to this point, everything is going according to plan.”
However, critics of the Iranian government believe that Rekabi’s statement was “forced” and that she could still face serious consequences.
“The first thing that can happen to her is to go to jail,” Iranian women’s rights activist Mahya Ostovar, an Iranian women’s rights activist and lecturer at the University of Galway, Ireland, said in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday. “She can be forced to confess on camera on national television.”
This was confirmed by the Iranian embassy in Seoul in a statement posted to Twitter that Rekabi had left Seoul for Tehran on Tuesday morning.
“The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in South Korea strongly denies all fake news, lies and misinformation about Ms. Elnaz Rekabi,” the embassy added.
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women in Iran have been required to wear a hijab. They must also abide by the mandatory rule outside of Iran when officially representing the country abroad. Iranian women who do not publicly cover themselves are routinely detained by the country’s vice squad.
Widespread protests have swept Iran in recent weeks, sparked by the death of a young woman who was arrested by vice squads for breaking a strictly enforced Islamic dress code. Mahsa Amini, 22, died in police custody in Tehran on September 16, three days after she was arrested for allegedly wearing her state-mandated hijab too loosely. Iran requires women to don the garment in public so that their hair is completely covered.
Iranian police have denied that Amini was mistreated. They said she suffered a heart attack at the police station and died after being in a coma for two days. According to The Associated Press, Amini’s family said she had no history of heart problems and that they were prevented from seeing her body before she was buried.
Women protesters in Iran were seen removing their headscarves and cutting their hair to show their solidarity with Amini. The movement has garnered global attention, with people around the world taking to the streets in support of the Iranian protesters.
Widespread demonstrations in Iran have been brutally crushed by authorities, who are cutting off internet access and allegedly using both excessive and deadly force. Nearly 8,000 protesters were arrested and at least 240 killed, including 32 children, according to US-based human rights monitor HRANA.
Rekabi first competed in a headscarf at the week-long annual Asian Championships in the South Korean capital, but then wore just a black headband for Sunday’s final round. She took fourth place.
The Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Association of Iran announced the result on its website alongside an undated picture of Rekabi wearing a headscarf. Rekabi did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment on Monday, while phone calls to the Iran Climbing Association went unanswered. On Tuesday, however, an Instagram account posted a statement in Farsi on behalf of Rekabi, which said: “Due to the sensitivity of the finale and the unexpected call to scale the wall, my hijab unintentionally went crooked.”
Rekabi is believed to be one of the first Iranian athletes to flout compulsory hijab – a move widely hailed as “historic”, “daring”, “brave” and “powerful” by observers on social media. Sadaf Khadem, 27, was bareheaded and wearing shorts when she became the first Iranian boxer to win a fight abroad in April 2019. Khadem wanted to return to Tehran after the competition but was forced to stay in France after issuing an arrest warrant for dress code violations, according to Iranian authorities.
In December 2019, Iranian chess player Mitra Hejazipour removed her hijab to compete under the flag of the Islamic Republic during the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Moscow. The Iranian Chess Federation then expelled them. The 29-year-old should now compete privately and live in France.
Amid growing concerns about Rekabi, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) released a statement on Tuesday, saying it was monitoring the case and standing behind the athletes.
“There is a lot of information in the public domain about Ms. Rekabi and as an organization we have tried to establish the facts. We have also been in contact with Ms. Rekabi and the Iranian Climbing Federation,” the IFSC said. “We understand that she will return to Iran and we will continue to monitor the evolution of the situation upon her arrival. It is important to emphasize that athlete safety is of the utmost importance to us and we support all efforts to keep a valued member of our community safe during this situation. The IFSC fully supports athletes’ rights, their choices and their freedom of expression.”