DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi returned to Tehran early Wednesday after competing in South Korea without a hijab, an act Widely seen as support for anti-government demonstrators.
After landing, Rekabi gave a careful, dispassionate interview with Iran’s hardline state television, calling the lack of a hijab her “unintentional” act. However, hundreds of people gathered outside Imam Khomeini International Airport – including women without headscarves – to cheer “Champion Ernaz”, making Rekabi a figurehead for their ongoing protests.
It remains unclear where Rekabi went from the airport. Supporters and Persian-language media outside of Iran are concerned about Rekabi’s safety after returning home, Especially as activists say, demonstrations so far have seen security forces make thousands of arrests.
Rekabi’s split-screen reception showed growing rifts in Iranian society as nationwide protests sparked on September 12. Sixteen 22-year-old women died in the fifth week. Mahsa Amini detained by the country’s ethics police over her dress – Her death prompted women to take off their headscarves in public.
The demonstrations drew schoolchildren, oil workers and others to the streets in more than 100 cities, the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since mass protests over the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Rekabi, 33, competed without a hijab at the Seoul International Climbing Federation Asian Championships final, prompting her immediate support from those supporting the demonstrations, which increasingly include calls for the overthrow of the country’s theocracy .
But sports in Iran, from soccer leagues to competitive rock climbing in Rekabi, operate broadly under a series of semi-government organisations. Female athletes competing at home or abroad, whether playing volleyball or on the track, should have their hair covered as a sign of reverence. The hijab is mandatory for women in Iran and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
That left Rekabi without a lightning-rod moment in his public appearance on Sunday. She was wearing a black baseball cap and a black hoodie that covered her hair as she landed at Imam Khomeini International Airport earlier on Wednesday. A man hands her flowers.
At first, Rekabi repeated an explanation posted earlier on an Instagram account in her name, saying it was “unintentional” that she didn’t wear a hijab. The Iranian government has often pressured activists at home and abroad, often broadcasting on state television what human rights groups say are forced confessions — The camera she used when she got home.
Rekabi said she was in a women-only waiting area before climbing.
“Because I was so busy putting on my shoes and gear, it made me forget to put on my hijab and then I went to the game,” she said.
She added: “Despite a lot of tension and stress, I returned to Iran with peace of mind. But so far, thank God, nothing has happened.”
The depressing scene then gave way to a jubilant crowd outside the terminal. Online videos corresponding to known features of the airport showed people gathering to chant Raikabi’s name and call her a hero. Footage showed her waving in a van.
Rekabi left Seoul on a Tuesday morning flight. The BBC’s Farsi-language service, which despite being banned from operating in Iran, has extensive connections inside Iran, citing an unnamed “informed source” as saying Iranian officials confiscated Rekabi’s mobile phone and passport. BBC Persian also said she had originally planned to return on Wednesday, but her flight had apparently been brought forward unexpectedly.
IranWire, another country-focused site created by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist formerly detained in Iran, suggesting that Rekabi could be taken immediately to Tehran’s notorious Evan prison, which houses dissidents.A blaze over the weekend kills at least eight inmates.
The Iranian embassy in Seoul denied “all false, fake news and disinformation” about Rekabi’s departure. However, instead of posting a photo of her at the Seoul race, it posted a picture of her wearing a hijab at the previous Moscow race, where she won a bronze medal.
Rekabi wore a headscarf during her first appearance during a week-long rock climbing event in Seoul.She wore only a black headband for Sunday’s gameher black hair is tied into a ponytail; she has a white jersey with the Iranian flag as a sign.
Competition footage shows Rekabi relaxing after approaching the climb and the competition.
The International Federation of Sport Climbing, which oversees the event, said it was in contact with Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to elaborate on the calls when contacted by The Associated Press. The federation also declined to discuss Recabi’s claims about the rush to play.
A small group of protesters demonstrated in front of the Iranian embassy in Seoul on Wednesday, with some women cutting their hair, like other demonstrators around the world after Amini’s death.
Human rights groups have estimated more than 200 people have been killed so far in the weeks-long protests and the violent security forces crackdown that followed. Iran has not provided a death toll for weeks. Demonstrations have taken place in more than 100 cities, according to Iranian human rights activists. Thousands are believed to have been arrested.
However, gathering information on the demonstrations remains difficult. The Iranian government has cut off internet access for several weeks. Meanwhile, authorities have detained at least 40 journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly claimed that the country’s foreign enemies are behind the ongoing demonstrations, not the Iranians’ response to Amini’s death and the country’s death. Other dilemmas are outraged.
Iranians have seen their life savings evaporate; the country’s currency, the rial, has plummeted and Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers has fallen apart.
Associated Press writer Ahn Young-joon in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.