A female Iranian athlete who competed at an international climbing competition without her hijab has insisted it was “completely unintentional.”
Fears for the safety of Elnaz Rekabi were raised after she attended the IFSC Asian Championships in Seoul, South Korea with her hair uncovered - an action which defies Iran’s strict dress code. BBC Persian reported that an unnamed but “well-informed source” had said the climber’s mobile phone and passport had been confiscated and that her flight home had been “unexpectedly” moved forward.
Rekabi’s friends and family also told the BBC they had lost contact with her following the competition. But the Iranian Embassy said the athlete was flying back to Tehran and “strongly denies all fake news, lies and false information about Ms Elnaz Rekabi."
After receiving a hero’s welcome on her return from those who interpreted her act as one of protest, Rekabi told a state TV reporter: “It was completely unintentional. I think my Instagram Story fully explained this. I was unexpectedly called and I had to compete. I was busy putting on my shoes and technical gear and that caused me to forget putting on the hijab I had to be wearing.”
She continued: “Fortunately, I came back to Iran with peace of mind, although I went through a lot of tension and stress, so far, thank God, nothing has happened.”
In the wake of her statement, many have pointed out that the Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what human rights groups describe as coerced confessions on state television.
The incident comes amidst widespread unrest in Iran. .Protesters are bravely taking to the streets to challenge the country’s strict ‘morality’ laws in the wake of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was detained by police on 13 September for allegedly violating Iran’s strictly enforced dress code. She died whilst in police custody.
Why are there concerns for Rekabi?
Women in Iran are required to cover their hair with a hijab or headscarf, and female athletes must also abide by this dress code when representing Iran in competitions abroad. Rekabi removed her hijab in the IFSC’s Combined Finals, in an act many considered to be a protest against the Islamic Republic’s oppressive regime.
This dress code is strictly enforced under Iran’s ‘morality’ laws, which stipulate what people can - or cannot - do, say and wear. Amini, whose death was tragically the catalyst for the ongoing protests, was arrested by police under these laws for wearing her hijab “too loosely”. While the government in Iran said she died in custody from a “sudden heart attack”, the young woman’s family has suggested she was killed.
There were fears then that Rekabi may be subject to a similar fate. Yesterday (18 October), Elika Ashoori, a British Iranian living in London, said: “I feel like what has happened to Elnaz is a true representation of what the Islamic Republic represents - oppression, control and hate.
“Anyone who looks at the video of Elnaz competing and fails to see the pure talent, skill and passion an athlete has for her sport and instead sees and is threatened by a few strands of hair, only reflects their own warped way of thinking and sick attitude to women and human life in general.”
Elika’s father Anoosheh Ashoori was kept imprisoned in Tehran on bogus spying charges until earlier in the year, when he was released alongside Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She recently cut her hair live on television in solidarity with the female protesters in Iran.
She told NationalWorld: “Any other country would cherish their athletes, they honour them and put them on a pedestal. The Islamic Republic of Iran kidnaps and jails theirs. There is nothing suggestive about Elnaz’s outfit. She is wearing her very modest sports gear and she exudes elegance and bravery. I am in awe of her and hope that one day soon she can continue her sport in a country that gives her the respect and admiration she deserves.”
Two years ago, Iranian chess referee Shohreh Bayat said she had received death threats after a photo circulated that appeared to show her without a hijab at the Women’s World Chess Championship in Shanghai. She insisted that she had been wearing a headscarf loosely over her hair at the time, but she subsequently fled to the UK and claimed asylum after being warned that she could face arrest if she returned to her home country.
Many are concerned that Rekabi will still face retribution for not wearing a headcovering, and others do not believe the excuse she gave in the interview and have taken it as a sign she is scared of what might happen.
A friend and former member of the national ice climbing team Zeinab Moosavi has said she is "very concerned" for Rekabi, writing in a statement on Instagram: "Considering all the events that have happened, all of Iran and the world are worried about Elnaz’s condition after her arrival in Iran.”
Why are there protests in Iran?
The protests were sparked by Ms Amini, who died after being arrested for violating Iran’s dress code. But the unrest has only grown in the weeks since, with the tragedy of Ms Amini coming to highlight for many Iranians the Islamic Republic’s heavy-handed policing of defiance and the increasingly brutal treatment of young women in the country.
Protesters taking to the streets in Tehran and at least twelve other cities in Iran are being viciously confronted by the country’s ‘morality’ police. Hundreds have been arrested, and various human rights organisations have said hundreds are likely to have died. On Sunday (16 October), a fire broke out at Evin Prison, a jail known to house political prisoners and anti-government activists. In online videos, gunshots and explosions could be heard in the area.
What has the response been around the world?
As women in Iran take to the streets to cut their hair or remove their hijab, activists, politicians and celebrities around the world have joined in via the #HairForFreedom movement to show solidarity.
For example, a group of more than 50 high-profile French actors and musicians, including names Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Adjani and Isabelle Huppert, and Angèle, posted a video of themselves cutting their hair - a video Ms Binoche opens by stating “for freedom”.
In the world of politics, Swedish MEP Abir Al-Sahlani cut her hair in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. She addressed her fellow MEPs by declaring: “Until Iran is free, our fury will be bigger than the oppressors. Until the women of Iran are free, we are going to stand with you.”