By Victoria Bisset
The Washington Post
Elnaz Rekabi, an Iranian climber who made global headlines for competing without the state-mandated hijab in South Korea, was welcomed by jubilant crowds in Tehran on Wednesday, following days of concern over her welfare.
Rekabi’s return to Iran comes as mass protests across the country continue into their fifth week following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in custody after the country’s morality police detained her on accusations she wasn’t wearing the right headscarf correctly. Many interpreted Rekabi’s not wearing a headscarf as a symbol of solidarity with women in Iran, many of whom have removed or burned their hijab during recent demonstrations.
A statement had appeared on the 33-year-old athlete’s Instagram account Tuesday, explaining that she had appeared without a headscarf at the competition by mistake.
The stilted message raised further fears for her safety among Iranian rights groups based abroad, who say that Iran routinely extracts false confessions from activists, protesters and detainees.
Some of that concern turned to joy as Rekabi returned to Iran in the early hours of Wednesday, with videos shared on social media showing cheering crowds waiting outside the capital’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, chanting the athlete’s name and hailing her as a “hero.”
In an interview with Iranian state news agency IRNA from inside the terminal, Rekabi appeared nervous. With her head covered with a baseball cap and a hood, she echoed the explanation given in her Instagram story that a last-minute call to compete had caused her to forget to put on her headscarf.
“I have returned to Iran in complete health,” she said, and she offered an apology “to the people of Iran” over the incident.
She also stated that she had traveled back to Iran as planned — in an apparent response to reports that she had left South Korea a day earlier than scheduled, with activists fearing for her safety as BBC Persian reported that her friends had been unable to contact her. Rekabi said she intended to continue competing for Iran.
The Iranian Embassy in Seoul previously responded to the international attention on Rekabi by expressing its opposition to “all the fake, false news and disinformation” surrounding the athlete’s fate.
Rekabi finished in fourth place in the Combined Boulder and Lead final of the recent International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Asian Championships.
In previous competitions, Rekabi has always appeared with the headscarf, which is mandatory for both women inside Iran and female athletes representing the country internationally.
Competitors who did not comply with the mandatory hijab in the past have issued apologies or remained abroad.
The unrest over the issue of mandatory veiling for women has come to symbolize wider anger against the Iranian government and has been met with a violent crackdown by authorities.
Many demonstrations have turned violent, with some 240 people, including 32 children, killed since the unrest began in September, according to U.S.-based Iranian rights groups HRANA.