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Rekabi Was Cheered After Returning to Iran. But is She Safe?

Experts believe she is making statements under duress and it’s unclear if she is being held under detention or will face retribution.

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Elnaz Rekabi, who competed without a hijab during the weekend’s Asia Continental Championships, returned home to Iran on Wednesday. Now a symbol of the ongoing anti-government protests, she was greeted by a large crowd chanting “Elnaz is a heroine.” She was given flowers and hugs. 

[Read: Safety Concerns Mount for Iranian Climber Who Competed Without Hijab]

On social media, Rekabi denied purposely climbing without her hijab, saying it was “inadvertent.” Her post may have been made under duress. 

At the airport, Rekabi gave an interview to state cameras, reiterating what her social media post said. “I was suddenly and unexpectedly called on to compete while I was at the women’s locker room,” she said. “I was busy wearing my shoes and fixing my equipment and forgot to wear my hijab, which I should have worn.”

“Fortunately, I came back to Iran with peace of mind. Although I went through a lot of tension and stress.”

Rekabi also denied reports that she had been out of contact with her family and friends or that she had left Korea earlier than scheduled.

“That didn’t happen. We’ve returned to Iran exactly as planned,” she stated. “Until this moment, everything has been according to plan.” 

She then reportedly got into a van; it’s unclear where she went from there. It’s also unclear whether she was working off her own script or the government’s, and whether she will still face retribution, though multiple Iran experts think this is likely. 

Climbing has been in touch with Iranian climbing team members who have reiterated Rekabi’s statements. But it was not clear to what extent they were being told to reply a certain way or trying to do damage control to minimize Rekabi’s risk of government retribution.

In an email to NBC news, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights, stated that he suspects that Iranian authorities had “forced” Rekabi to say that climbing without a hijab was by accident.

“Based on our knowledge of the Islamic Republic, they will go very far to set an example for other athletes and young girls in general, so that this kind of disobedience doesn’t happen again,” he stated. “Their rule is based on fear. What Elnaz did contributes to breaking off the fear, and the authorities can’t tolerate it. It is about the survival of the system.”

On Tuesday, Rekabi’s brother, Davoud Rekabi, gave an interview to a state-aligned Tasmin news agency, saying “My sister had a hijab but was wearing a headband and unfortunately some people [took advantage] of this issue. My sister is a child of Iran, and she will always play wearing the national team’s uniform. Elnaz belongs to this land, and she will always play for this country.” Again, it’s unclear if his statements were also made under duress. Rumors have circulated on social media and various news outlets that he has been arrested since being summoned yesterday, but Climbing has not been able to verify this. 

Rekabi’s climb came amid weeks of protest in Iran, which were sparked following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old arrested by the Iranian morality police for improperly wearing her hijab. She died in custody. The resulting protests have been the biggest threat to Iranian authorities since the 1979 revolution. Young women are leading the charge—protesting in cities across Iran and in schools, taking off their headscarves and shouting “death to the dictator.” Police have used live ammunition and have given fatal beatings. Children have been detained and sent to “mental health facilities.” 16-year-old Asra Panahi died after security forces raided the high school she attended in Ardabil and demanded a group of girls sing an anthem that praises Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. She was reportedly beaten in the classroom.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.