'Elnaz the Champion' Arrives in Tehran, Her Story Unchanged

Iranian climber still insists her lack of hijab during competition in S. Korea was 'unintentional'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 18, 2022 8:13 AM CDT
Updated Oct 19, 2022 7:41 AM CDT
Iranian Athlete Goes Without Hijab, Then Goes Dark
Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi competes during the women's Boulder & Lead final during the IFSC Climbing Asian Championships in Seoul, on Sunday.   (Rhea Khang/International Federation of Sport Climbing via AP)

Update: Elnaz Rekabi is officially back in Iran, after a recent climbing competition in South Korea in which she didn't wear her hijab. The AP reports that the 33-year-old athlete gave a "careful, emotionless" interview to state media at the Tehran airport after landing early Wednesday, once more insisting that her lack of hijab at the competition was "unintentional." "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 noted. Rekabi also denied she'd been unreachable for the last couple of days, amid reports that friends weren't able to contact her, per Reuters. Still, hundreds who convened at Imam Khomeini International Airport, including women sans their own hijabs, cheered and called her "Elnaz the Champion." It's unclear where Rekabi went after leaving the airport. Our original story from Tuesday follows:

Friends say they fear for the well-being of an Iranian sport climber who's been out of touch since competing abroad without a hijab. The Iranian Embassy in South Korea says Elnaz Rekabi has left the Asian Championships to return to Iran, where hundreds of people have reportedly died while protesting the government and a strict hijab law in particular. But friends say they've been unable to reach Rekabi, and a source tells the BBC that her phone and passport were confiscated before her flight back to Tehran on Tuesday. Rekabi was flown back to Iran a day early to deter protests at Tehran's airport and was to be taken to Evin Prison, the site of recent tumult, Iran Wire reports via the AP and Guardian.

A post appeared on Rekabi's Instagram account on Tuesday, denying she engaged in any sort of protest. "Due to bad timing, and the unanticipated call for me to climb the wall, my head covering inadvertently came off," it read, per the BBC. The AP disputes this, noting footage from the event showed her looking relaxed without the hijab before the climb. The statement also included an apology "for all the concerns I have caused," adding, "I am currently on my way back to Iran alongside the team based on the pre-scheduled timetable." Family members of Iranian protesters who've turned up dead have described government efforts to silence them or force confessions.

Rekabi is thought to be "only the second Iranian female athlete to compete while openly defying Iran's strict law requiring women to wear the Islamic head covering," per the Guardian. The boxer Sadaf Khadem competed without a head covering in 2019 in France and ultimately stayed in that country after Iran issued a warrant for her arrest. Rekabi wore a hijab during her first appearances at the weeklong climbing event, but not during Sunday's final. She wore a shirt bearing the Iranian flag and a black headband that did little to cover her ponytail. The International Federation of Sport Climbing has said it is in contact with Rekabi and the Iranian Climbing Federation as it tries "to establish the facts." (Read more Iran stories.)

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