Fear Grows for Iranian Climber Elnaz Rekabi After She Competed in Seoul Without Hijab


SEOUL, South Korea — An Iranian female competitive climber left South Korea on Tuesday after competing at an event in which she climbed without her nation’s mandatory headscarf covering, authorities said. Farsi-language media outside of Iran warned she may have been forced to leave early by Iranian officials and could face arrest back home, which Tehran quickly denied.

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The decision by Elnaz Rekabi, a multiple medalist in competitions, to forgo the headscarf, or hijab, came as protests sparked by the Sept. 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old woman have entered a fifth week. Mahsa Amini was detained by the country’s morality police over her clothing.

The demonstrations, drawing school-age children, oil workers and others to the street in over 100 cities, represent the most-serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election.

Read more: Here’s How to Support Protesters in Iran

Rekabi left Seoul on a Tuesday morning flight, the Iranian Embassy in South Korea said. The BBC’s Persian service, which has extensive contacts within Iran despite being banned from operating there, quoted an unnamed “informed source” who described Iranian officials as seizing 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, alleged that Rekabi would be immediately transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison after arriving in the country. Evin Prison was the site of a massive fire this weekend that killed at least eight prisoners.

In a tweet, the Iranian Embassy in Seoul denied “all the fake, false news and disinformation” regarding Rekabi’s departure on Tuesday. 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.

Calls to the Iranian Embassy in Seoul rang unanswered Tuesday.

Rekabi didn’t put on a hijab during Sunday’s final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship, according to the Seoul-based Korea Alpine Federation, the organizers of the event.

Federation officials said Rekabi wore a hijab during her initial appearances at the one-week climbing event. She wore just a black headband when competing Sunday, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail; she had a white jersey with Iran’s flag as a logo on it.

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Rekabi was a member of Iran’s 11-member delegation, which comprises of eight athletes and three coaches, to the event, according to the federation.

Federation officials said they were not initially aware of Rekabi competing without the hijab but looked into the case after receiving inquires about her. They said the event doesn’t have any rules on requiring female athletes wearing or not wearing headscarves. However, Iranian women competing abroad under the Iranian flag always wear the hijab.

South Korea’s Justice Ministry refused to confirm whether the Iranian athlete is still in South Korea or has left the country, citing privacy-related regulations. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said it has no comments on the issue.

Rekabi, 33, has finished on the podium three times in the Asian Championships, taking one silver and two bronze medals for her efforts.

So far, human rights groups estimate that over 200 people have been killed in the 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.

Read more: The Iranian People’s 100-Year Struggle for Freedom

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 has 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.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers John Marshall in Phoenix and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul contributed to this report.

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