Iranian mountaineer Elnaz Rekabi, who competed without a hijab, is back in Tehran

Elnaz Rekabi

Iranian competition climber Elnaz Rekabi was greeted as a hero upon her return to Tehran early Wednesday, after competing in South Korea without wearing the mandatory headscarf required of female athletes from the Islamic Republic.

Rekabi’s decision not to wear the hijab in competition on Sunday came as protests sparked by the September 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old woman entered their fifth week. Mahsa Amini was arrested by the country’s vice police for her clothes – and her death saw women take off their compulsory hijab in public.

Fans and Farsi-language media outside Iran became concerned for Rekabi’s safety after she chose to compete without the hijab.

Rekabi repeated on Wednesday an explanation posted earlier on an Instagram account in her name that described her as “unintentional” not wearing a hijab. The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often broadcasting what the rights group describes as forced confessions on state television – the same cameras she aimed at her back home.

Video shared online showed large crowds gathering early Wednesday at Imam Khomeini International Airport outside Tehran, the sanctioned country’s main gateway out of the country. The videos, matching known features at the airport, showed crowds chanting the name of Rekabi, 33, and calling him a hero.

She walked into one of the airport terminals, caught on camera by state media, wearing a black baseball cap and a black hoodie covering her hair. She received flowers from an onlooker, then repeated what had been posted on Instagram that not wearing the hijab was “involuntary” and that her trip had gone according to plan.

Rekabi described being in a women-only waiting area before his ascent.

“Because I was busy putting on my shoes and gear, it made me forget to put on my hijab, and then I went to compete,” she said.

She added, “I came back to Iran with peace of mind even though I had a lot of tension and stress. But so far, thank God, nothing has happened.

Outside, she apparently got into a van and was slowly driven through the gathered crowd, who cheered her on. It was unclear where she went after that.

Rekabi left Seoul on a flight Tuesday morning. The BBC’s Persian Service, which has extensive contacts in Iran despite the ban on operating there, quoted an unnamed “informed source” who described Iranian officials as having seized both the mobile phone and the passport of Rekabi.

BBC Persian also said she was originally due to return on Wednesday, but her flight was apparently brought forward unexpectedly.

IranWire, another country-focused website founded by an Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who was previously detained by Iran, claimed that Rekabi would be immediately transferred to the infamous Evin prison in Tehran after arriving in the country. Evin prison was the scene of a massive fire last weekend which killed at least eight prisoners.

In a tweet, the Iranian embassy in Seoul denied “all fake news and misinformation” regarding Rekabi’s departure. But instead of posting a photo of her from the Seoul competition, he posted an image of her wearing a headscarf from a previous competition in Moscow, where she won a bronze medal.

Rekabi did not wear a hijab in Sunday’s final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing Asian Championships.

Rekabi wore a hijab in her first appearances at the week-long climbing event. She wore just a black headband when competing on Sunday, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail; she had a white jersey with the Iranian flag as a logo on it.

Footage from the competition showed Rekabi relaxed as she approached the rock climb and after competing.

Iranian women competing abroad under the Iranian flag always wear the hijab.

“Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops upon her arrival,” said the International Sport Climbing Federation, which oversaw the event. in a press release. “It is important to emphasize that athlete safety is paramount to us and we support all efforts to ensure the safety of a valued member of our community in this situation.”

The federation said it had been in contact with Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to elaborate on the substance of those calls when contacted by The Associated Press. The federation also declined to discuss the Instagram post attributed to Rekabi and the claims it contains.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry acknowledged the departures of the Iranian athlete and her team from the country without giving further details. A small group of demonstrators demonstrated outside the Iranian embassy in Seoul on Wednesday, with some women cutting strands of their hair as others have done in protests around the world since Amini’s death.

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