After her return to Iran on Tuesday, fears are mounting over the safety and whereabouts of a 33-year-old Iranian rock climber who competed in South Korea over the weekend without covering her hair. Rights groups, activists, and fans are worried about the athlete’s fate amid conflicting reports and a possibly concerning Instagram post.
On Sunday, Elnaz Rekabi competed at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asian Championships in Seoul—without a hijab. Iranian law states that female athletes must continue to follow its dress code while competing at international events. Protests against the country’s strict rules governing women’s clothing have been ongoing for five weeks, and authorities are continuing their violent crackdown.
Footage of Rekabi climbing, with her hair in a ponytail and a thick headband wrapped around her head, quickly went viral—especially since Rekabi has always competed in a hijab, fueling the belief that she chucked it as a political stance. On Monday, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran tweeted the footage, calling Rekaki’s actions “brave,” and noting that she’s “become the second Iranian athlete to shun the government in #Iran’s forced-hijab rule.” (Boxer Sadaf Khadem competed in France in 2019 without a hijab and wearing a leotard that showed her arms and legs. She remained in France, where she still lives today, due to the near-certainty that she would be arrested if she returned to Iran.)
Since the competition, Rekabi’s passport and cellphone have reportedly been confiscated, and friends told BBC Persian that they’d lost contact with her. Rekabi apparently left South Korea for Iran on Tuesday morning, according to authorities in both countries, despite earlier reports suggesting that she was flown home Sunday after the event. IranWire—the website founded by Maziar Bahari, the journalist whose imprisonment in Iran inspired John Stewart’s Rosewater—alleged that Rekabi would likely be brought to Evin Prison. The country’s notorious jail for political prisoners was also the site of a suspicious fire over the weekend that killed at least eight people.
“The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in South Korea strongly denies all fake news, lies and false information about Mrs. Elnaz Rekabi,” the embassy wrote in a tweet on Tuesday, along with a photo of Rekabi wearing a hijab.
The athlete also posted an apology statement in Farsi to her Instagram story on Tuesday that read, “Apologizing for the worries that I caused.” She added that she competed without the hijab because of “inappropriate timing and an unpredictable call for me to climb.” But it’s unclear if Rekabi wrote the message herself or if she was forced to do so—a common tactic Iranian authorities are known to use with activists and political prisoners.
A short interview with Davoud Rekabi, who says he is Rekabi’s brother, was published on a “semi-official” Iranian newsite, according to Al Jazeera. “Unfortunately some are trying to ride waves [take advantage] on this issue,” he said, adding that Rekabi was not trying to defy Iranian law.
The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) said it was in contact with Rekabi and Iranian officials. “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,” they said in a statement. “The IFSC fully support the rights of athletes, their choices, and expression of free speech.”
Over 200 protesters have been killed and at least 40 journalists have been detained since the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini sparked country-wide protests over the treatment and oppression of women in Iran. The government has cut the internet, stormed universities, and arrested thousands. Despite the crackdown, protests have raged on in what’s considered to be the largest challenge to the country’s theocratic government in years. Women are continuing to chop their hair, burn their hijabs, and rise up against the regime beneath the slogan, “Woman. Life. Freedom.”