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Safety Concerns Mount for Iranian Climber Who Competed Without Hijab

Elnaz Rekabi placed fourth in this past weekend’s Asian Continental Championships. Then she went missing and rumors of her possible detainment circulated. 

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Elnaz Rekabi came out calm and focused. She hesitated only once early in the route, second-guessing between a few foot options. Then she committed, stuck the move, and motored on. She climbed slowly, yet decisively, and her hair, tied in a ponytail, flowed freely as she wound up for each move. When she fell on the upper headwall, she came down smiling, looking at the scoreboard for the results. The commentators didn’t even notice, or if they did, they didn’t say anything about it: that this strong and seemingly completely normal athlete had just done something historical, and it would likely cost her. 

Elnaz Rekabi, 33, was reportedly missing after not wearing her hijab during this past weekend’s Asian Continental Championships, in Seoul, Korea. Concerns about her safety have been mounting: the BBC quoted “well-informed sources” saying Rekabi’s passport and mobile phone had been confiscated. IranWire wrote that she was reportedly tricked by Reza Zarei, the head of Iran’s Climbing Federation, to enter the Iranian embassy in Seoul and hand over her passport and phone in exchange for her safe return to Iran. According to the outlet, Zarei was acting under orders he received from Mohammad Khosravivafa, Iran’s Olympic Committee chairman, and Rekabi would be directly transferred to Evin prison, notorious for housing political prisoners, from the airport. Recently, a fire erupted at the prison, killing at least eight.

These claims, however, were disputed by the Iranian embassy, who, in a tweet, stated that Rekabi “departed from Seoul to Iran, early morning of October 18, 2022, along with the other members of the Team. 

“The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in South Korea strongly denies all the fake, false news and disinformation regarding Ms. Elnaz Rekabi.”

In an interview with Climbing, an Iranian close to the team members (who wished to remain anonymous) stated:

“Unfortunately some news agencies like BBC and IranWire are spreading fake news about her and her brother being arrested. I just talked to team members who are with her. She is OK. They just changed the hotel to run away from all the interviewers in front of the hotel. She is on her flight back with others and her brother is also OK at home in Zanjan. Nothing has happened to anyone yet and we hope that she will be safe while arriving in Iran.”

Climbing reached out to the International Federation of Sport Climbing for comment. They responded saying that the IFSC had contacted Rekabi  and was “trying to establish the facts.”

“It is important to stress that athletes’ safety is paramount for us and we support any efforts to keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation. The IFSC fully support the rights of athletes, their choices, and expression of free speech.” [Ed Note: in the below video, Rekabi’s lead attempt begins at 2:13:00.]

Earlier today Rekabi seemingly posted a message on Instagram stating, “I, Elnaz Rekabi, with more than 20 years of experience in the national Iranian rock climbing team, apologize for the concerns I have created. I must announce that due to the sensitivity of the final competitions of the championship of Asia due to the improper timing and the unforeseen invitation for me to climb, my outfit was inadvertently problematic.” This post has since been taken down and many duplicate accounts have been created.

Rekabi’s protest follows a month of widespread uprising in Iran. It amounts to the most serious internal unrest that the Iranian authorities have seen in decades. Police confrontations have turned violent: according to US-based rights monitor HRANA, 233 protestors have been killed, 32 of which were below the age of 18. Children who have participated have been detained and sent to mental health facilities to “reform” and expel their “anti-social” behaviors, as stated by Iran’s Education Minister Yousef Nouri to an Iranian newspaper. Student protestors have been tear gassed and arrested. On Tuesday, the UN Human Rights Office said “the unabated violent response by security forces against protesters, and reports of arbitrary arrests and the killing and detention of children are deeply worrying.”

The protests arose following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old arrested by the Iranian morality police for improperly wearing her hijab. She was detained on September 13 and was reportedly beaten with a baton. The police claimed she died after suffering a heart attack and falling into a coma. According to The Associated Press, Amini’s family stated that she had no prior history of heart issues. She passed away on September 16. 

For the past five weeks, women have since been removing their hijabs in solidarity, throwing them down or even setting fire to them in public demonstrations. Chants echo across the country: “Woman, life, freedom” and “Death to the dictator,” a reference to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian women have been allowed to compete only under the stipulation that they wear a hijab. Rekabi is believed to be the second woman to break the rule, following Sadaf Khadem. In 2019, at 27, Khadem became the first female Iranian boxer to win an overseas fight, doing so without her hijab. She had intended to return to Tehran following the competition but, when an arrest warrant was issued, she was forced to stay in France. 

Rekabi has been competing in international climbing competitions since 2007, placing as high as second in the 2013 Asian Continental Championships in bouldering, first in the 2017 Wanxianshan, China Asia Cup, also in bouldering, and, in this recent Asian Continental Championships, in Korea, fourth in the combined bouldering and lead category.

It’s possible her ability to compete on the Iranian National team will be revoked. “They might call her to go to a disciplinary committee and answer some questions or even worse,” the anonymous source stated. “We are all worried and waiting for her to arrive.”

***

[UPDATE] Following publication, another anonymous source contacted Climbing, claiming that Rekabi’s brother has been arrested with the intention of using him as leverage to bring her home. At this time, Climbing is working verify this information.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competes in 2019.
Elnaz Rekabi at the IFSC Kranj World Cup in Lead in 2019. She finished in 20th place. (IFSC/Eddie Fowke)