The Iranian competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi has received a hero’s welcome on her return to Tehran after competing in South Korea without wearing a headscarf as required of female athletes from the Islamic Republic.
Video shared online showed large crowds at Imam Khomeini international airport terminal outside Tehran despite the 4am arrival time of Rekabi’s flight. People clapped and chanted the 33-year-old’s name and handed her flowers inside the terminal.
The furore over Rekabi competing on Sunday without a hijab came as protests prompted by the death in custody on 16 September of a 22-year-old woman entered a fifth week. Mahsa Amini was detained by the country’s morality police over her clothing and her death has led to women removing their mandatory hijabs in public.
The demonstrations represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election.
Friends and supporters raised concerns over Rekabi’s safety after she competed without the hijab. An Instagram post on an account attributed to Rekabi described her not wearing a hijab as “unintentional”, though it was not immediately clear whether she wrote the post or what condition she was in at the time. The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights groups describe as coerced confessions on state television.
In a two-minute interview to state broadcasters inside the airport, Rekabi repeated what had been posted on Instagram. “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, adding: “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 left the airport in a van heading for an unknown destination.
It remains to be seen whether Iranian officials will be satisfied by Rekabi’s public explanation, even though they know it is likely to be false and given under some form of duress. They will have to decide whether to let the controversy subside or inflame the issue by arresting her or disqualifying her from the team.
In an ominous sign, her brother Davoud Rekabi was summoned to an intelligence agency office.
Later on Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it had held a joint meeting with the International Federation of Sport Climbing and Iranian officials. The IOC said it received “clear assurances that Ms Rekabi will not suffer any consequences and will continue to train and compete”. It described Rekabi as being with her family and said she had joined a call with officials.
Other athletes have faced harassment since protests broke out last month and Iranian authorities are struggling to deal with statements in support of the protests from some the country’s sports stars. Their big fear is protests during Iran’s World Cup group games in Qatar against the US and England.
Rekabi left Seoul on Tuesday morning. The BBC’s Persian service quoted an unnamed “informed source” who said Iranian officials seized Rekabi’s mobile phone and passport.
In a tweet, the Iranian embassy in Seoul denied “all the fake, false news and disinformation” regarding Rekabi’s departure. Instead of posting a photo of her from the Seoul competition, it posted an image of her wearing a headscarf at a previous competition in Moscow, where she won a bronze medal.
Sports in Iran broadly operate under a series of semi-governmental organisations. Female athletes competing at home or abroad are expected to keep their hair covered as a sign of piety. Iran, as well as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, make such head coverings mandatory for women.
Human rights groups estimate that more than 200 people have been killed in the recent protests and the violent crackdown that followed. Iran has not published a death toll in weeks. Demonstrations have taken place in more than 100 cities, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Thousands are believed to have been arrested.
Climbing organisations and professionals, as well as the international community, should stand with Rekabi, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said in a statement.
“While she was scaling that wall in Seoul without the state’s forced hijab, Ms Rekabi was showing the world who she is: a professional climber and Iranian woman with a spine of steel,” said CHRI’s executive director, Hadi Ghaemi.
“She, like countless women in Iran, has risked everything to tell the world that she opposes the state’s policy of forced hijab, and we are extremely worried about her safety.”
Associated Press contributed to this report