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Concern for Iranian athlete who climbed without hijab

Wesley Dockery
October 18, 2022

Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi competed at a climbing competition in Seoul without a headscarf, going viral on social media. She has since gone missing, with some reports suggesting the Iranian government may punish her.

Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi competes during the women's Boulder
Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi competes without a headscarf during the women's BoulderImage: Rhea Kang/AP/picture alliance

International alarm grew on Tuesday over the well-being of Iranian competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi after she competed without a hijab at an event in South Korea. She is believed to have gone missing since the event, according to multiple reports.

Concerns about her whereabouts come amid a crackdown on antigovernment protests in Iran and a movement against the country's obligatory hijab policy.

What do we know about Elnaz Rekabi?

The 33-year-old athlete took part in the Asian Sport Climbing Championships in Seoul on Sunday where she did not wear Iran's mandatory headscarf.

The Iranian Embassy in South Korea has claimed Rekabi departed by plane from Seoul earlier on Tuesday. Yet, concerns are growing that she may face harsh punishment when she returns to her home country.   

Iranian citizen journalist website IranWire reported that Rekabi will be transferred to Evin Prison upon her arrival in Tehran. The detention center was the scene of a fire over the weekend, which killed at least eight inmates.

A still shot of Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi competing at a climbing event in Seoul, South Korea
Images of Elnaz Rekabi climbing without a hijab during the competition circulated widely on social mediaImage: Khabarfoori.com

Both IranWire and the BBC's Persian service reported that Iranian officials had seized her phone and passport while in Seoul. The BBC said she was originally set to leave on South Korea on Wednesday, but her flight departure had been unexpectedly moved up.    

"The authorities have also summoned and arrested her brother, which can only be translated as hostage taking," Maral Karimi, author of a book on the Iranian Green Movement, told DW. This, she said, was to force Rekabi to return to Iran.

The Iranian Embassy in Seoul said it "strongly denies" the "fake news, lies and false information" being spread regarding the status of Rekabi.  

Elnaz Rekabi's Instagram post

In a post on Rekabi's Instagram account, the athlete apologized on Tuesday for causing concern. She wrote that her decision to not wear the hijab during the competition was unintentional. She claimed she was returning to Iran with her team as scheduled.

It's unclear whether Rekabi was forced to post the Instagram story by Iranian officials, or if she did so voluntarily.

"She will most probably be forced to make false confessions on national TV. It could be that her Instagram post was also forced," Maral Karimi told DW.

The International Federation of Sport Climbing said in a statement it is "fully aware of the news regarding Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi." 

"Our understanding is that she returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops on her arrival," the statement added. "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." 

Antigovernment protests in Iran

The controversy surrounding Rekabi's whereabouts comes amid massive demonstrations in Iran against the regime's obligatory headscarf policy for women. These demonstrations were ignited by the September 16 killing of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by morality police for improperly wearing her hijab.

The demonstrations represent the greatest challenge to the regime it has faced in years, with Tehran carrying out mass arrests of protesters in response. The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran watchdog reported Tuesday that at least 215 people and 27 children have been killed in the current protests. 

The United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and other countries have imposed new sanctions on Iran over rights violations amid the uprising. Tehran, meanwhile, sees the protests as an orchestrated attempt by the West to subvert its regime.

Iranians keep up pressure at home and abroad

Edited by: Rebecca Staudenmaier