Following concern over her whereabouts and safety after competing in Seoul without a hijab, Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi has returned to cheering crowds in Tehran.
Rekabi made headlines over the weekend when she was seen competing in the Asian Championships without the mandatory hijab required of female athletes by the Islamic Republic, a move largely seen in support of the ongoing protests over the death of 22 year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody. Now entering their fifth week, the protests against the country's morality police have been one of the biggest retaliations against Iran's theocracy since the mass protests over the disputed 2009 presidential elections. School-age children, oil workers and countless women are removing their hijabs and cutting their hair across 100 cities.
The protests have supposedly led to hundreds of deaths, although an exact figure is tricky to confirm given the government's control over information. Concerns over Rekabi's fate were raised by several Farsi-language outlets and human rights organizations with Amnesty International tweeting that she could be “at real risk of arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill-treatment.”
Upon her arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport, Rekabi told state media that the act of not wearing a hijab had been "unintentional" on her part, echoing statements she previously posted on Instagram. “Because I was busy putting on my shoes and my gear, it caused me to forget to put on my hijab and then I went to compete,” she explained, having been previously been in a women-only waiting area prior to her climb. “I came back to Iran with peace of mind although I had a lot of tension and stress. But so far, thank God, nothing has happened.”
The authenticity of Rekabi's apology have come into question with many rights group noting that Iranian government is known to routinely pressure activists into giving coerced confessions. BBC Persian previously reported that Rekabi's passport and phone had been seized by Iranian officials and her flight home was moved up unexpectedly. IranWire also reported that officials were also considering taking her to Evin Prison, which is typically reserved for dissidents, upon her return.
The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), which oversaw the championships in South Korea, said in a statement that they were currently monitoring the situation. "It is important to stress that athletes' safety is paramount for us and we support any efforts to keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation." In a joint meeting with the IFSC and Iranian officials, the International Olympic Committee said that they had received “clear assurances that Ms Rekabi will not suffer any consequences and will continue to train and compete.”
Photo via Getty/MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP