Elnaz Rekabi: Concerns grow for female climber from Iran who competed without hijab

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By Euronews  with AP
Elnaz Rekabi competing in Seoul
Elnaz Rekabi competing in Seoul   -   Copyright  Credit: International Federation of Sport Climbing

Concerns are growing for a female Iranian athlete, who took part in a climbing competition in South Korea without wearing her nation's mandatory headscarf covering. 

The decision by Elnaz Rekabi, a 2021 climbing world championship bronze medalist, to forgo the headscarf, or hijab, came as protests sparked by the 16 September death 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 Iranian Embassy in Seoul said Rekabi, 33, left the country on Tuesday morning.

It has been reported that she was due to leave on Wednesday, but that her departure was brought forward by Iranian authorities.

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.

A new Instagram post on an account attributed to Rekabi described her not wearing a hijab as “unintentional," though it wasn't immediately clear whether or not she wrote the post under duress. 

The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights groups describe as coerced confessions on state television.

IranWire, a website founded by an Iranian-Canadian journalist who once was detained by the regime, 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 last 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

Who is Iran's first female climbing star, Elnaz Rekabi?

Elnaz Rekabi was already a recognised bouldering talent in her native Iran and across Asia before she broke onto the international World Cup scene in 2016. 

With no national federation for support, Rekabi financed her own career and fought to try and overcome gender discrimination.

In a 2016 interview with Euronews, she said that friends would encourage her, and urged her to continue with the sport, "but it is true that every time people ask me about what I do they are stunned," she said. 

"But on a positive note, it does help other girls to come out and practice this sport.’‘

Another obstacle Rekabi highlighted that can sometimes get in the way of her climbing is the hijab she wears. However, she told Euronews that she was trying to work around it without compromising her religious belief. 

‘‘At the beginning, it was a little bizarre for the other athletes, who were curious about a girl wearing a scarf on her head and an outfit that covered the arms and legs whilst competing inside in such a hot temperature." 

"For sure when it's hot the hijab becomes a problem. During competition, your body needs to evacuate the heat. But we have tried to create an outfit ourselves that respects the hijab and is compatible with practising the sport of climbing.’‘

What happened during the Seoul competition?

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 organisers 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.

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 inquiries 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.

In a statement, the International Federation of Sport Climbing said they had been in contact with Rekabi, and "will continue to monitor the situation as it develops on her arrival".

"It is important to stress that athlete safety is paramount for us and we support any efforts to keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation," the federation said, adding that they "fully support" athletes' choices and expressions of free speech. 

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