Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi receives hero’s welcome in Tehran following decision not to wear the hijab

Iranian competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi has received a hero’s welcome on her return to Tehran, after competing in South Korea without wearing a mandatory headscarf required of female athletes from the Islamic Republic.

This image grab from footage obtained from Iranian State TV IRIB on October 19, 2022 shows Elnaz Rekabi, an Iranian climber who caused a sensation by competing at an event abroad without a hijab, giving an interview upon her arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.(Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
This image grab from footage obtained from Iranian State TV IRIB on October 19, 2022 shows Elnaz Rekabi, an Iranian climber who caused a sensation by competing at an event abroad without a hijab, giving an interview upon her arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran.(Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Rekabi’s decision not to wear the hijab while competing on Sunday came as protests sparked by the death in custody 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 seen women removing their mandatory hijabs in public in protest. The demonstrations, drawing school-age children, oil workers and others to the street in more than 100 cities, represent the most-serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election.

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Supporters and Farsi-language media outside of Iran have worried about Rekabi’s safety after she choose to compete without the hijab. On Wednesday, Rekabi repeated an explanation posted earlier to an Instagram account in her name that described her not wearing a hijab as “unintentional”.

The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights group describe as coerced confessions on state television – the same cameras she addressed on her arrival back home. Video shared online showed large crowds gathered early on Wednesday at Imam Khomeini International Airport outside of Tehran, the sanctioned nation’s main gateway out of the country.

The videos, corresponding to known features of the airport, showed crowds chanting the 33-year-old Rekabi’s name and calling her a hero. She walked into one of the airport’s terminals, filmed by state media and wearing a black baseball cap and a black hoodie covering her hair.

She received flowers from an onlooker, and then repeated what had been posted on Instagram that not wearing the hijab was “unintentional” and her travel had been as previously planned.

People gather at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran to welcome Elnaz Rekabi, an Iranian climber who caused a sensation by competing at an event abroad without a hijab Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images

Rekabi described being in a women’s only waiting area prior to her climb.

She said: “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 added: “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.”

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Outside, she apparently entered a van and slowly was driven through the gathered crowd, who cheered her. It was not clear where she went after that.

Rekabi left Seoul on a Tuesday morning flight. The BBC’s Persian service, which has extensive contacts within Iran despite being banned from operating there, quoted an unnamed “informed source” who described Iranian officials as seizing both Rekabi’s mobile phone and passport.

BBC Persian also said she initially had been scheduled to return on Wednesday, but her flight was moved up unexpectedly.

Rekabi did not put on a hijab during Sunday’s final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship, where she finished in fourth place.

The athlete wore a hijab during her initial appearances at the one-week climbing event. She wore just a black headband when competing on Sunday, with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. So far, human rights groups estimate that over 200 people have been killed in the protests and the violent security force crackdown that followed. Iran has not offered a death toll in weeks.