Iran: What happened to the climber Elnaz Rekabi who competed without a veil?

Iran: What happened to the climber Elnaz Rekabi who competed without a veil?

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On Monday night, Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without a veil at the Asian Climbing Championships in Seoul. In a message posted on social networks, the climber assured this Tuesday that her gesture was “unintentional”, while for a month her country has been shaken by a revolt against the hijab. But were these confessions forced?

Iranian Elnaz Rekabi, 33, is making international headlines. On the night of October 16-17 in Seoul, the Iranian climber finished fourth in the Asian Climbing Championships. Beyond the sports performance, it is the fact that she appeared with a simple knotted headscarf, and not the traditional hijab, that turned the world upside down.

A clear violation of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s dress code that mandates the wearing of the hijab for all female athletes, even abroad.

“If it is voluntary, it is a very strong gesture. [Elnaz Rekabi] shows its solidarity with Iranian women who reject the veil. It is also a heroic gesture because it runs the risk of expelling the team from Iran,” says sociologist Azadeh Kian, a researcher at Paris Cité University.

This gesture comes as Iran has been rocked for a month by protests. Following the death of Mahsa Amini, arrested by the Tehran police for not wearing the veil correctly, these protests turned into a movement against compulsory hijab and the Islamic Republic itself. According to the NGO Iran Human Rights, 122 people died in the repression of this dispute.

Supporters of the movement have been quick to portray Rekabi on social media as a “hero”, posting images of her climbing the letters of the protest slogan “Woman. Life. Freedom”.

Growing Concerns

But where has he gone since his gesture? According to the Iranian embassy in South Korea, Elnaz Rekabi left Seoul on Tuesday morning. The BBC Persian Service quoted an “informed” but unnamed source as saying Iranian authorities confiscated the athlete’s mobile phone and passport. The British outlet also claims that he should not have left the Korean peninsula until Wednesday, but that his return had inexplicably been brought forward.

The IranWire site, created by the Canadian journalist of Iranian origin Maziar Bahari, stated that Elnaz Rekabi had been transferred to the Evin prison in Tehran as soon as she arrived in the country.

“The hypothesis of a transfer to prison upon arrival is credible. She could have been taken there at least for questioning,” Judge Azadeh Kian. “Authorities usually confiscate celebrities’ passports when they return, arrest them, and then interrogate them. After that, they either keep them in jail or release them.”

The sociologist recalls that this was exactly what happened to the singer Homayoun Shajarian and his wife, the actress Sahar Dolatshahi, when they returned from a concert in Australia.

In a tweet, the Iranian embassy in Seoul denied “all fake news and misinformation” about Rekabi’s departure on Tuesday. But instead of posting a photo of herself at the Seoul competition, she posted a picture of herself wearing a headscarf at an earlier competition in Moscow, where she won a bronze medal.

Coincidence or repression?

In her first post since appearing without a hijab, Elnaz Rekab apologized for the “concerns” caused and insisted her bareheaded appearance was “unintentional.”

“I have been a member of the Iran Climbing Federation for twenty years. I apologize for the concern I caused regarding the situation (in Iran). During the final of the Asian Championship, there was a programming error: I was called at the last moment of climbing the wall. There was an error in my way of dressing. I will return to Iran as planned,” she explains in a story posted on her uncertified Instagram account.

The message posted by the Elnaz Rekabi account on Instagram.
The message posted by the Elnaz Rekabi account on Instagram. © Screenshot

However, given the nature of the message, it is difficult to establish whether the Athlete wrote it freely or even published it.

“I think you have to be careful with this message,” warns Azadeh Kian. “Forced confessions are common in Iran. We saw it again recently with the confessions of two Frenchmen.”

“This type of method has been around for years. Detainees are physically and mentally tortured. They are prevented from sleeping for several days, they are placed in total isolation without light. They are made to understand that no one thinks of them. accompanied by threats to their families, then they tell them what to say to make it all stop,” says Azadeh Kian. “It is so common that in Iran no one believes these confessions anymore, which are actually more aimed at their support base than at the rest of the population.”

This is also the hypothesis defended by the activist Masih Alinejad. In exile since 2009, he has for years denounced the forced wearing of the hijab in Iran. On Twitter he speaks of “an act of intimidation, a forced confession.” The International Climbing Federation issued a statement to emphasize that it was closely monitoring the situation: “From what we understand, she has returned to Iran and we will continue to follow the evolution of the situation in her. It is important to emphasize that the safety of the athlete is paramount to us and we support all efforts to keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation.”

The fact that Iran Wire published a post on Tuesday afternoon announcing that Davood Rekabi, Elnaz’s brother, was also arrested tends to prove this thesis of forced contrition.

The federation said it was in contact with Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to expand on the matter when contacted by The Associated Press. The federation also refused to discuss the Instagram post attributed to Rekabi and the claims it contains.

Elnaz Rekabi is not the first Iranian athlete who has dared to compete without a hijab. Boxer Sadaf Khadem appeared bareheaded during a fight in France in 2019. After this event, she never returned to Iran and now lives in exile in France.

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