After reports that Iranian female climber Elnaz Rekabi would be arrested and imprisoned for competing without a head covering in South Korea, the athlete distanced herself from the perceived act of defiance, calling it “unintentional.”
“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 said of her experience at the Asian Championships in Seoul.
“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,” she said.
While online media channels, including IranWire, speculated that the climber would be taken to the notorious Evin Prison upon her arrival for forgoing her hijab, a crowd of Iranians at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport welcomed and applauded her.
Footage of Rekabi participating without a head covering was widely circulated online, as anti-regime protests spread throughout Iran following the brutal killing of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini for her failure to wear a hijab. Amini’s died in the custody of Iran’s “morality police,” following what one official called “re-education.”
Until her return to Iran on Wednesday, Rekabi’s friends and family said they had been unable to make contact with her, despite a social media post attributed to the climber saying she was sorry for “getting everybody worried.”
“Due to bad timing, and the unanticipated call for me to climb the wall, my head covering inadvertently came off,” Rekabi’s post said, adding that she was flying back to Iran “alongside the team based on the pre-arranged schedule.”
According to BBC’s Persian news service, “well-informed sources” said both Rekabi’s passport and cell phone had been confiscated.
On Tuesday, the Iranian embassy in South Korea posted a picture of Rekabi from an earlier competition, wearing a headscarf, and denied “all the fake, false news and disinformation” about the athlete’s return.
The International Federation of Sport Climbing said it had been in contact with Rekabi and the Iranian Climbing Federation, “trying to establish the facts.”
“Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops on her arrival,” the Federation said at the time. “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. The IFSC fully support the rights of athletes, their choices, and expression of free speech.”
Rekabi’s apparent disappearance prompted an anonymous Iranian woman to publish a piece in The Independent about life as a female in Iran, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
“Since I was six years old, I have been ordered to remain silent and not question the wearing of the hijab in girls’ schools,” the anonymous woman wrote. “When I was a child, my mother and aunt were detained in front of my eyes on the street for hijab ‘offences’ and kept in jail for a night.”
The Tehran-born writer said even non-Muslim Iranian women wear hijabs in the streets, “because anyone who declares that they don’t believe in Islam will either be killed or deprived of education and employment. Many who feel this way are forced to emigrate, even if we love our country.”
“This is what is truly at stake when you see our protests and when you watch footage of us removing the hijab,” she said. “When you see Iranian women on social media without headscarves – or at a party, while drinking and dancing – it still does not indicate our freedom or liberty. No. Every single Iranian woman who does this, does so in civil protest. We do it at tremendous risk. We do it to fight for freedom.”