Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi flew home to cries of ‘hero’ on Wednesday after disappearing from the public eye for two days following a controversy over her competing without the Islamic Republic’s mandatory hijab.
Rekabi made international headlines while competing unveiled at the International Federation of Sport Climbing (iFSC) Asia Continental Championships in South Korea last weekend.
Rekabi’s final climb at the Seoul competition took place on Sunday. Videos of her climbing without a hijab, though otherwise fully covered, went viral on social media.
On Monday, her friends and supporters expressed concern that she could not be contacted, and BBC Persian quoted sources who said Iranian officials had seized her passport and phone after the climb.
The sight of the unveiled Iranian climber held a special significance as it came during the fifth week of mass protests in Iran following the death of Jîna (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of the morality police.
Amini died on 16 September, days after being beaten during an arrest for wearing her hijab improperly, triggering nationwide protests that have rocked Iran’s theocratic government.
On landing in Tehran, Rekabi, who has a prodigious record in international competitions, arrived at the airport terminal wearing a black baseball cap and hoodie.
Videos posted on social media showed large crowds applauding, chanting the climber’s name and calling her a hero at the airport.
Rekabi made a statement to the effect that not wearing the hijab had been “unintentional”, confirming a message that had been posted earlier on her Instagram account.
She said she had been called to compete sooner than expected and had been busy trying to get her sports kit on, and apologised for the “worries” she had caused.
The Iranian Embassy in Seoul had tweeted that Rekabi “departed from Seoul to Iran, early morning of October 18, 2022, along with the other members of the team”, together with a picture of her at a different competition, in a hijab.
However, Rekabi did not arrive at Imam Khomeini international airport near Tehran until Wednesday morning after what is normally a 10-hour flight. They also denied the “fake, false news and disinformation” circulating about Rekabi.
On Tuesday Rekabi’s brother was interviewed by the Iranian state-aligned news agency Tasmin and said, “My sister had a hijab but she was wearing a headband and unfortunately some people made waves about this issue.” He also said his sister was a child of Iran and would always wear the team’s uniform.
Following her statement at the airport Rekabi was driven away in a van. While opposition news site IranWire quoted sources at the airport as saying she would be taken straight to Evin prison, it is unclear what repercussions she may face having issued a public apology.