Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi returned to Tehran early Wednesday after competing in South Korea without wearing a headscarf, an act widely seen as support for anti-government demonstrators amid weeks of protests over the Islamic Republic's mandatory hijab.
After landing, Rekabi gave a careful, emotionless interview to Iran’s hard-line state television, saying that going without a hijab had been an “unintentional” act on her part.
However, hundreds gathered outside Imam Khomeini International Airport — including women not wearing the hijab — and cheered for “Elnaz the Champion,” casting Rekabi as an inspiration for their continued protests.
The future Rekabi faces after returning home remain unclear. Supporters and Farsi-language media outside of Iran have worried about Rekabi’s safety after her return, especially as activists say the demonstrations have seen security forces arrest thousands so far.
The differing reception for Rekabi shows the growing fissures in Iranian society as nationwide protests sparked by the Sept. 16 death of a 22-year-old woman are in their fifth week. Mahsa Amini was detained by the country’s morality police over her clothing — and her death has prompted women to remove their hijabs in public.
The demonstrations, drawing school-age children, oil workers, and others to the streets in over 100 cities, represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election.
That Rekabi, 33, competed without her hijab in Seoul during the finals of the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship prompted her immediate embrace by those supporting the demonstrations that increasingly include calls for the overthrow of the country's theocracy.
But sports in Iran, from soccer leagues to Rekabi's competitive climbing, broadly operate under a series of semi-governmental organizations. Women athletes competing at home or abroad, whether playing volleyball or running track, are expected to keep their hair covered as a sign of piety. Iran, as well as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, make such head coverings mandatory for women.
That made Rekabi's public appearance on Sunday without one a lightning-rod moment. On landing at Imam Khomeini International Airport early Wednesday, she wore a black baseball cap and a black hoodie covering her hair. A man handed her flowers.
At first, Rekabi repeated an explanation posted earlier to an Instagram account in her name, saying her not wearing the hijab was “unintentional." The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights groups describe as coerced confessions on state television — the same cameras she addressed on her arrival back home.
Rekabi said she was in a women-only waiting area prior to her climb.
“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 said.
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.”
The somber scene then gave way to one a jubilant crowd outside the terminal. Videos online, corresponding to known features of the airport, show those gathered chanting Rekabi's name and calling her a hero. Footage showed her waving from inside a van.
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” as saying Iranian officials as seized both Rekabi’s mobile phone and passport. BBC Persian also said she initially had been scheduled to return on Wednesday, but her flight apparently had been moved up unexpectedly.
IranWire, another website focusing on the country founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who once was detained by Iran, suggested that Rekabi could immediately be taken to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where dissidents are held. A massive fire there over the weekend killed at least eight prisoners.
Later on Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee said it held a joint meeting with the International Federation of Sport Climbing and Iranian officials. The IOC said it received “clear assurances that Ms. Rekabi will not suffer any consequences and will continue to train and compete.” However, other athletes have faced harassment amid the demonstrations.
The IOC described Rekabi as being with her family and said she joined a call with officials.
The Iranian Embassy in Seoul had denied “all the fake, false news and disinformation” regarding Rekabi’s departure. But instead of posting a photo of her from the Seoul competition, it posted an image of her wearing a headscarf at a previous competition in Moscow, where she took a bronze medal.
Rekabi wore a hijab during her initial appearances at the one-week climbing event in Seoul. She wore just a black headband when competing Sunday, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she had a white jersey with Iran’s flag as a logo on it.
Footage of the competition showed Rekabi relaxed as she approached the climbing and after she competed.
On Wednesday, a small group of protesters demonstrated in front of Iran's Embassy in Seoul, with some women cutting off locks of their hair like others have in demonstrations worldwide since Amini's death.
So far, human rights groups estimate that over 200 people have been killed in the weekslong protests and the violent security force crackdown that followed. Iran has not offered a death toll in weeks. Demonstrations have been seen in over 100 cities, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Thousands are believed to have been arrested.
Gathering information about the demonstrations remains difficult, however. Internet access has been disrupted for weeks by the Iranian government. 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 alleged the country’s foreign enemies are behind the ongoing demonstrations, rather than Iranians angered by Amini’s death and the country’s other woes.
Iranians have seen their life savings evaporate; the country’s currency, the rial, plummeted, and Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers has been reduced to tatters.