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Fears grow for Iranian climber as she returns home after competing without a hijab

Elnaz Rekabi left South Korea for Iran early Tuesday, authorities in both countries said, prompting activists and rights groups to fear for her safety.
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Concerns were growing Tuesday for an Iranian rock climber who drew global attention after competing at an international event without her nation’s mandatory headscarf.

Elnaz Rekabi left South Korea for Iran early Tuesday, authorities in both countries said, after climbing in a competition in Seoul over the weekend.

Her return has prompted fears for her safety from activists and rights groups, with the country in the grip of a deadly crackdown on anti-government protests triggered by the death of a young woman in a hospital three days after being arrested by the morality police.

The hijab has become the focus of weeks of social unrest that have engulfed the nation, driven by women protesting against strict restraints on their behavior and appearance imposed by authorities in the Islamic Republic.

Rekabi didn’t put on a hijab during Sunday’s event final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship, in which she finished fourth.

Videos show Rekabi, 33, wearing a headband, her hair tied in a ponytail.

Rekabi competed during the finals of the Asian Championships in Seoul without a hijab.Rhea Kang / AFP - Getty Images

Given that female athletes from Iran always wear a hijab while competing abroad and Rekabi had previously done so herself, what appeared to be a daring political statement was widely noticed by Western media and Iranian observers.

The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran called it “brave,” while Amnesty International said Rekabi’s actions were “courageous,” adding that others doing similar acts have faced “severe consequences” in Iran.

But Tuesday, a message posted to her Instagram account was apologetic, saying she did not wear a hijab while competing because of issues caused by “inappropriate timing and an unpredictable call for me to climb.”

The message, written in Farsi, also added that Rekabi was returning to Iran with the rest of the team “according to schedule.” NBC News could not independently verify if Rekabi wrote the message herself, and the circumstances under which it was posted remain unclear.

Hours earlier, the Iranian Embassy in Seoul said in a tweet, written in English, that Rekabi had departed from the South Korean capital for Iran “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,” it added.

NBC News has reached out to the embassy for further comment, with calls going unanswered Tuesday. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said "it is understood that all members of the Iranian delegation including Elnaz Rekabi have already left (South) Korea" after attending the event.

The International Federation of Sport Climbing said in a statement Tuesday that it has been in contact with Rekabi and the Iranian Climbing Federation.

“There is a lot of information in the public sphere regarding Ms Rekabi and as an organization we have been trying to establish the facts,” the statement said. “Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops on her arrival.”

The organization added that it supported any efforts to “keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation,” while emphasizing athletes’ rights and expression of free speech.

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights, said in an emailed statement that he was very concerned for Rekabi and suspects that Iranian authorities had “forced” her to say that she did not wear her hijab 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 said. “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.”

Rekabi competing in Seoul on Sunday.
Rekabi competing in Seoul on Sunday. Rhea Kang / AP

Jasmin Ramsey, the deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said the group is concerned for Rekabi’s safety, “as well as for the safety of all women who are being punished in Iran for engaging in civil disobedience.”

“The government in Iran has turned the hijab, which should be a choice, into a tool of political repression,” she said in an emailed statement.

The monthlong protests that have rocked Iran were initially sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by morality police for allegedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code. Women across the country have responded by cutting their hair and appearing in public with their heads uncovered. The demonstrations that followed have developed into the most serious challenge to Iran’s government in more than a decade.

Rekabi is not the first female Iranian athlete to face issues after competing in attire that violates the dress code, with boxer Sadaf Khadem forced to stay in France after she said Iranian authorities issued a warrant for her arrest when she competed without a headscarf and in shorts in 2019.