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Concern mounts for Iran’s climber Elnaz Rekabi who competed without hijab

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PARIS: Alarm grew on Tuesday over the wellbeing of Iranian sports climber Elnaz Rekabi after she competed at an event in South Korea without a hijab in what some saw as a gesture of solidarity with the women-led protests at home.

Rekabi, 33, in her first comment since the event at the Asian Championships in Seoul on Sunday, apologised on Instagram for the “concerns” caused and insisted her bare-headed appearance had been “unintentional”.

In the initial bouldering discipline her head was covered with a bandana but in the later lead climbing, scaling a high wall with a rope, she wore only a headband, the stream posted by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) showed.

This was in breach of the Islamic republic’s mandatory dress rules of compulsory headscarf for women which also apply to all female athletes, even when competing abroad.

The gesture came one month into protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, arrested in Tehran for allegedly violating the dress rules, which have transformed into a movement against the obligatory hijab and the Islamic republic itself.

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.” “A brave young Iranian woman! We need the world to stand with women of Iran and condemn what is happening there,” tweeted Iranian-American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari who flew to space as a tourist in 2006.

Nothing had been heard since the event from Rekabi, who finished fourth, until a story was published on Tuesday on her Instagram account where she has over 200,000 followers. “I firstly apologise for all the concerns I have caused,” the statement said.

Due to the timing and sudden call to begin the climb “my hijab unintentionally became problematic”, it said. “I am currently on my way back to Iran alongside the team based on the pre-scheduled timetable,” it added.

However, there was alarm over under what circumstances the statement had emerged after unconfirmed reports suggested she had been pressured by Iranian officials in South Korea.

BBC Persian quoted an unnamed source as saying friends had been unable to contact her and the team had left their hotel in Seoul on Monday, two days before the scheduled departure date.

Meanwhile news website Iran Wire said the head of Iran’s climbing federation had “tricked” her into entering the Iranian embassy in Seoul and that she would then be taken directly to the airport.

It said the federation chief had promised her safe passage to Iran if she handed over her phone and passport.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2022


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