Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi—who competed at an event in Korea without wearing the headscarf mandated for all Iranian female athletes—was cheered on by a large crowd of supporters upon her arrival at the Tehran airport on Wednesday, amid nationwide protests across Iran over the death of a 22-year-old woman at the hands of the country’s morality police.
Rekabi, who arrived at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport from Seoul, was greeted with applause and chants of “Elnaz is a heroine.”
The climber, who was wearing a black cap and a hoodie, was then hugged by her family and handed a bunch of flowers.
In an interview with Iranian State TV, Rekabi reiterated that her dressing choice was “unintentional” and her headscarf fell off “inadvertently” as she was rushed into the competition.
Rekabi also added that she was feeling “tense” about returning home but is fine.
The nature of the interview was immediately questioned by several Farsi language journalists and activists who speculated if she was being forced to make her statements under duress.
Prior to her arrival IranWire—a U.K.-based publication run by Iranian journalists—reported that the climber’s brother Davood Rekabi had been summoned by Iranian intelligence officials and her family had not heard from her.
What We Don’t Know
It is unclear where Rekabi was taken after her arrival at the airport. Earlier reports suggested the climber may face serious punishment, including potential jail time, upon her arrival in Iran, raising concerns about her safety. Some observers have warned any attempt to imprison or punish Rekabi could trigger even more protests.
Rekabi—a multiple-time medal winner—did not wear a hijab during the finals of the Asian Sport Climbing Championship in Seoul Sunday in violation of Iran’s stringent attire rules for all female athletes. Some viewed her actions as a protest against the Iranian government which has brutally cracked down on anti-government protests triggered by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in police custody last month. Amini died last month after allegedly being beaten by Iran’s so-called morality police in Tehran last month. Amini had been detained by the police after they deemed that she was violating the public dress code for women which requires them to cover their heads with a hijab and wear loose-fitting clothes that cover their arms and legs. A text-only post on Rekabi’s Instagram page apologized for triggering concerns and said her decision to not wear a hijab was purely “unintentional” and was caused by a scheduling mix up that saw her unexpectedly being called up to climb earlier than she had expected. But there is some speculation that she may have been coerced to issue the statement on Instagram.
Elnaz Rekabi: Iranian climber flies home to crowds of supporters (BBC)
Iranian Climber Elnaz Rekabi—Who Competed Without Headscarf—Explains Decision Amid Concerns For Her Safety (Forbes)