The Guardian: Missing Iranian climber dropped headscarf by mistake, Instagram post claims

Friends of Elnaz Rekabi have been unable to contact athlete since Sunday, while embassy says she returned home with rest of teamFears for Iranian rock climber after she competed in Seoul without wearing a hijab – video Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Moones Mansoubi in Sydney Tue 18 Oct 2022 17.57 BST

A female Iranian climber who competed in an international tournament without a hijab did so because her headscarf had dropped by mistake, a post on her Instagram account has claimed.

Footage of Elnaz Rekabi, 33, scaling a wall without her head covered during an international tournament went viral, coming amid big female-led demonstrations against Iran’s clerical rulers sparked by strict Islamic rules on women’s clothing.

Supporters of the protests on social media described Rekabi as a “hero”, posting images of her climbing up the letters of the protest slogan “woman, life, freedom”.

Nothing had been heard from Rekabi since the event in South Korea until a story was published on Tuesday morning on her Instagram account, where she has more than 200,000 followers.

“I firstly apologise for all the concerns I have caused,” the statement said, explaining that, because of the timing and sudden call to begin the climb, her “hijab unintentionally became problematic”.

“I am currently on my way back to Iran alongside the team based on the pre-scheduled timetable,” it added.

The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights groups describe as coerced confessions on state television. The claim of an error on her Instagram account may suggest the regime is trying to avoid putting her in jail after the video of her without her hijab went viral.

On Tuesday, the BBC quoted “well-informed sources” as saying Rekabi’s passport and mobile phone had been confiscated before she boarded a plane back to Tehran.

The BBC World Service presenter Rana Rahimpour tweeted that “there are concerns about her safety”.

The online news site Iran Wire reported Rekabi had been taken to the Iranian embassy in Seoul to ensure she could be flown home with minimal scrutiny.

Iran Wire, a small anti-regime website, quoted a source as saying that Rekabi would be flown back to Tehran on Tuesday – one day earlier than scheduled – to deter possible protests at Imam Khomeini international airport.

South Korea’s foreign ministry acknowledged that the Iranian athlete and her team had left the country, without elaborating.

In a tweet on Tuesday, the Iranian embassy in Seoul said it “strongly denies all the fake, false news and disinformation” about Rekabi.

Iran has been gripped by deadly protests since the death of Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody last month. The 22-year-old had been detained by the country’s morality police for not wearing a hijab properly.

The demonstrations in Iran, drawing school-age children, oil workers and others to the street in more than 100 cities, represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election. Some female protesters have burned their hijabs and cut off their hair, while crowds have chanted “zan, zendegi, azadi” (“woman, life, freedom”).

So far, human rights groups estimate that more than 200 people have been killed in the protests and the violent security force crackdown that followed.

Last year, Rekabi became the first Iranian woman to win a medal at the sport climbing world championships. She finished fourth at last weekend’s event in South Korea. A video clip showed her scaling a wall with her hair tied back in a ponytail during the event.

Rekabi, who has posted photos on Instagram of herself training while wearing a hijab, is also believed to be only the second Iranian female athlete to compete while openly defying Iran’s strict law requiring women to wear the Islamic head covering.

In 2019, the boxer Sadaf Khadem became the first Iranian woman since the Islamic revolution to win a fight overseas. Khadem opted to remain in France after the bout, after Iranian authorities reportedly issued a warrant for her arrest because she had boxed bareheaded and in shorts.

In a 2016 interview with France-based Euronews, Rekabi acknowledged that wearing a hijab while climbing could pose additional physical challenges.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Iran’s Fars news agency, which reflects hardline views, published an editorial Tuesday critical of Rekabi but avoided mentioning her by name.

It asked why “Western, Zionist and Saudi” media had not paid attention to victories by Iranian women wearing headscarves in the last days in athletics and weightlifting but instead “highlighted the performance of a girl with unconventional behaviour”.

Iranian officials, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly alleged the country’s foreign enemies are behind the demonstrations, rather than Iranians angered by Amini’s death and the country’s other woes.

In a statement on Tuesday, the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights called for the immediate release of all those “arbitrarily detained” in the protests. It also criticised the “unabated violent response by security forces” that has seen even children reportedly arrested and killed.