Elnaz Rekabi's Controversial Climb

On October 16, Elnaz Rekabi, a young Iranian rock climber, generated controversy when she competed without her headscarf, as mandated by the government, in the Asian Continental Championships in South Korea. She personified the spirit of defiance among young female demonstrators who made the hijab the symbol of their demand for more personal freedoms. Two days later, she apologized publicly amid rumors that officials at Iran’s embassy in South Korea had seized her passport and phone. “My head covering inadvertently came off” due to bad timing and “the unanticipated call for me to climb,” she wrote on Instagram. But IranWire reported that she had planned to compete without a headscarf for weeks. 

Upon her return on October 19, hundreds cheered Rekabi at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. They chanted “Hero, Elnaz” and “Elnaz, the Champion.” She again apologized for accidentally forgetting to wear her headscarf at the competition, where she placed fourth. “Because I was busy putting on my shoes and my gear, it caused me to forget to put on my hijab,” she said. “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. I apologize to the people of Iran because of the stress created.”

On October 20, the president of Iran’s national Olympic committee said that Rekabi would not be punished. “It’s a small issue,” Mahmoud Khosravi Vafa said. “I’m surprised that it is being talked about so much.” But Rekabi was reportedly put under house arrest and told that her family’s land would be seized if she traveled abroad, gave interviews or engaged in “sensitive activities” on social media. Family members were unsure of where she was. Her only comment was on Instagram on October 21. “I am endlessly grateful for the support of you, all the people of Iran, the most decent people of the planet, athletes and non-athletes, and all your support in [the] international community,” she wrote. 

On December 2, IranWire reported that Rekabi's family house in northwestern Zanjan had been demolished by police. Iranian media claimed that her family did not have proper construction permits and that the house had been destroyed before her climb in October. On May 9, 2023, Rekabi climbed in her first competition since the South Korea event in October 2022. She tied for 41st place at a World Cup in Italy. Rekabi had competed internationally since 2007. She was the first Iranian woman to medal in climbing when she won bronze during the 2021 world championships.

The government had earlier retaliated against other women who discarded their hijabs. In April 2019, the judiciary reportedly issued an arrest warrant for Sadaf Khadem, a boxer who wore shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt, and no headscarf in a competition in France. Iran did not allow women to box. She became the first Iranian woman to win on the international stage. In January 2020, Iran kicked grandmaster Mitra Hejazipour off the national team for removing her headscarf during a world championship tournament in Russia. 

The regime also cracked down on female celebrities who supported the 2022 protests after the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. She had been detained for inappropriate dress, or showing too much of her hair. Security forces detained poet and songwriter Mona Borzouie in late September for her poem that supported the protests. “We will take this homeland back from your hands,” she said in a video posted on Instagram. In early October, officials reportedly confiscated actress Sahar Dolatshahi’s passport upon her return to Iran. She had traveled abroad with singer Homayoun Shajarian, who displayed Mahsa Amini’s picture in support of the protests at a concert in Australia.

Some of the information in this article was originally published on October 25, 2022.