Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi, who took part in an international climbing competition without wearing a hijab, returned to Tehran on Wednesday to a hero’s welcome.
A large crowd at Tehran airport greeted her as she arrived from Seoul, South Korea where she competed on Sunday with her hair uncovered.
Her family met her at the airport, where she was hugged and handed several bunches of flowers.
Videos on social media show hundreds of supporters clapping and chanting “Elnaz is a heroine” as she arrived.
Elnaz Rekabi–the Iranian climber who refused to wear compulsory hejab while competing–is greeted as a hero at 5AM at Tehran airport after her plane lands from Seoul. Imprisoning her will only increase the Iranian nation's enormous admiration for her. pic.twitter.com/7LFUk8hTTJ
— Karim Sadjadpour (@ksadjadpour) October 19, 2022
Rekabi has been hailed as a new symbol of the protests led by women in Iran.
Earlier, concerns about her safety were voiced as friends of the athlete told BBC’s Persian Service that they have been unable to contact her.
Presenter of the BBC World Service Rana Rahimpour tweeted that ”there are concerns about her safety.’’ Apart from a mysterious Instagram update, there have been no signs of Rekabi since the competition.
Iranian athlete competes without hijab
Rekabi, a well-accomplished Iranian rock climber, competed without wearing a hijab during Sunday’s event final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship, in which she finished fourth.
Countless videos that have now gone viral show Rekabi wearing just a black headband with her her hair tied in a ponytail. Rekabi was a member of Iran’s 11-member delegation, which comprises of eight athletes and three coaches.
Infuriating: One day after competing without headscarf at Asian Climbing Competition, #Iran’s Elnaz Rekabi has gone missing, phone confiscated, @IranWireEnglish reports that she is being flown to Evin prison. Cruel doesn’t even begin to describe it: pic.twitter.com/HMkxh4n2lN
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) October 18, 2022
Federation officials said that they were not initially aware of Rekabi competing without the hijab, but had looked into the case after receiving multiple inquiries about her. They stated that the event does not have any rules on requiring female athletes to wear headscarves. Iranian women competing abroad under the Iranian flag must always wear one, however. Rekabi herself had competed with the hijab previously.
Nevertheless, Rekabi had also previously highlighted that the hijab could sometimes get in the way of her climbing. Yet she mentioned that she had been trying to work around it.
”For sure when it’s hot the hijab becomes a problem. During competition, your body needs to evacuate the heat. But we have tried to create an outfit ourselves that respects the hijab and is compatible with practicing the sport of climbing.”
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran praised Rekabi’s move in not competing with a hijab, calling it ”brave.” Amnesty International also said Rekabi’s actions were “courageous,” highlighting that others doing similar acts have faced severe consequences in Iran.
Mysterious Instagram update
On Tuesday, a message appeared on Rekabi’s official Instagram account, which has about 200,000 followers. It was written in Farsi and uploaded as an apology.
“I firstly apologize for all the concerns I have caused,” the statement said. “Due to the timing and sudden call to begin the climb ‘my hijab unintentionally became problematic.”
“I am currently on my way back to Iran alongside the team based on the pre-scheduled timetable,” it added.
However, the circumstances under which the statement emerged were not clear. In addition, apart from this update, there have been no signs of the Iranian athlete.
Iranian authorities state athlete is on her way back to Iran
Hours before the mysterious message on Rekabi’s Instagram account, the Iranian Embassy in Seoul said in a tweet that Rekabi had left Seoul for Iran “along with the other members of the team.”
Ms. Elnaz REKABI, departed from Seoul to Iran, early morning of October 18, 2022, along with the other members of the Team.
The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in South Korea strongly denies all the fake, false news and disinformation regarding Ms. Elnaz REKABI. pic.twitter.com/053pFWs96m
— Iran embassy in Seoul (@IraninSKorea) October 18, 2022
“The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in South Korea strongly denies all the fake, false news and disinformation regarding Ms. Elnaz Rekabi,” it added.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry also said “it is understood that all members of the Iranian delegation including Elnaz Rekabi have already left South Korea.”
The International Federation of Sport Climbing stated as well on Tuesday that it had been in contact with Rekabi and the Iranian Climbing Federation.
“There is a lot of information in the public sphere regarding Ms Rekabi and as an organization we have been trying to establish the facts,” according to the statement. “Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops on her arrival.”
The organization added that it supports any efforts to “keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation.”
Athlete disappears amidst ongoing protests in Iran
Wearing a hijab is mandatory for Iranian women in sports competitions. One can therefore read Rekabi’s action as a political statement. In particular, given that the Iranian government is currently facing its biggest challenge in more than a decade.
Iran has been rocked by ongoing social unrest and deadly protests in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody last month. The country’s morality police had detained the 22-year-old for not wearing her hijab properly.
The crowds chant “zan, zendegi, azadi” (“woman, life, freedom”) in many of the deadly protests in Iran. These ongoing protests have influenced women worldwide to cut off their hair in support of women oppressed in Iran. Taking into account the ongoing situation, Rekabi’s could face severe consequences once home due to her act of defiance.