Iranian competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi returned to Tehran Wednesday morning after competing at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship in South Korea without wearing a hijab, which is required of female athletes from the Islamic Republic.
Rekabi, 33, was met at Imam Khomeini International Airport by people cheering and shouting “Hero!” at her taxi as she rode through the massive crowds around 5 a.m., video on Twitter showed.
The athlete’s decision to not wear the mandatory hijab during her Sunday competition in Seoul came after the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in custody of the country’s morality police after she was detained for not wearing her hijab correctly.
Amini’s death sparked protests in 100 cities across the country that are now entering their fifth week. Though Iran has not given an updated number of deaths in weeks, human rights groups estimate that over 200 people have been killed and thousands arrested in the protests and security crackdown that followed.
On Tuesday, an Instagram account attributed to Rekabi described her competing without a hijab as “unintentional,” but it’s unclear if she actually wrote the post or the condition she was in if she did.
According to The Associated Press, the Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights group describe as coerced confessions on state television.
It has also been reported that supporters and Farsi-language media outside of Iran have expressed concern for Rekabi’s safety after Sunday’s competition.
Inside the airport, Rekabi was filmed by state television cameras walking into an airport terminal wearing a black baseball cap and a black hoodie covering her hair.
After she received flowers from on onlooker, she said not wearing the hijab was “unintentional,” similar to the Instagram post, and her travel back to Iran was as previously planned. She added that she was in a women’s only waiting area prior to her event.
“Because I was busy putting on my shoes and my gear, it caused me to forget to put on my hijab and then I went to compete,” she told the reporters.
She added: “I came back to Iran with peace of mind, although I had a lot of tension and stress. But so far, thank God, nothing has happened.”
Rekabi left Seoul Tuesday morning after reportedly having her phone and passport seized by Iranian officials, according to information given to BBC Persian by an unnamed “informed source.”
The outlet also said she was initially scheduled to leave the country on Wednesday, but her flight was unexpectedly moved up.
It wasn’t clear where Rekabi was going from the airport, but IranWire, a website founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who once was detained by Iran, reported that the athlete was to be “immediately transferred” to Tehran’s Evin Prison.
The Iranian Embassy in Seoul posted a tweet Tuesday denying “all the fake, false news and disinformation” regarding Rekabi’s departure. The tweet included a picture of Rekabi winning a bronze medal at a previous competition in Moscow where she was wearing a hijab, instead of a picture of her competing in Seoul.
Ms. Elnaz 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. pic.twitter.com/053pFWs96m
— Iran embassy in Seoul (@IraninSKorea) October 18, 2022
In initial appearances during the week-long climbing event, Rekabi did wear a hijab, according to the International Federation of Sport Climbing. The controversy came during the final on Sunday when she was wearing a black headband instead of a headscarf.
“Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops on her arrival,” the federation said in a statement. “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 federation told The Associated Press it had been in touch with both Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to elaborate on the substance of those calls. The federation also declined to discuss the Instagram post attributed to Rekabi and the claims in it.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry also acknowledged the departures of Rekabi and her team without elaborating.