Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi issued a public apology last week after climbing without a hijab in the IFSC Asian Championships in Seoul, Korea (UKC News). It has now been reported that she was forced to do so and is now under house arrest, according to information shared with the BBC Persian service.
Before travelling to Seoul, Rekabi was forced to pass a $35,000 cheque and grant full power of attorney to Iran's Mountaineering Federation to sell her family's property, the source told BBC Persian.
In recent years, around thirty Iranian athletes have defected to avoid punishment for protesting the ultraconservative regime, or simply to escape it. To prevent this, Iranian athletes are often forced to leave collateral to guarantee their return.
Rekabi's lack of hijab while competing in the Combined finals in Seoul—where she placed fourth—has been interpreted by many as a protest in solidarity with Iranian women who are defying the Iranian regime's dress code by removing their hijabs, cutting their hair and burning headscarves.
The protests—in which over 240 people are reported to have been killed, with thousands arrested or detained— were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody in September after her arrest for "improper" covering, amid president Raisi's tightening of restrictions on women's dress and rights.
A repeated "apology" and a heroine's welcome
Rekabi, 33, returned to Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport from Seoul early last Wednesday morning. Speaking to Iranian state media, she repeated the apology that had earlier been posted to her Instagram account: that her lack of hijab was a "completely unintentional" accident after an unexpected call to climb.
"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 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." She also denied rumours that she had been missing for 24-48 hours or that she had returned to Iran earlier than scheduled.
A source has since told the BBC that these apologies were forced and that authorities threatened the seizure of her family's property if she refused to make the statement.
As Rekabi left the airport, crowds chanted her name and called her a 'heroine'. A source told BBC Persian that Rekani was detained in a room in the Iranian Olympic Committee building by plainclothes officers ahead of meeting Iran's sports minister, Hamid Sajjadi, after leaving the airport.
IFSC urged to continue supporting Rekabi despite assurances of Iranian authorities
On Wednesday afternoon, the IFSC released an official statement following discussions with Rekabi, the IOC and Iranian sports authorities, claiming that Rekabi had "safely arrived" in Iran and was with her family, citing further 'clear assurance' received that she would not suffer any consequences for her actions.
'The IFSC, in close coordination with the IOC, the Iranian National Olympic Committee, and the IMSCF, will continue monitoring the situation and will wait for her to return to the IFSC circuit of events at the beginning of the 2023 season,' the statement ended.
In a tweet, the New York-based independent Center for Human Rights in Iran urged the IFSC to be proactive in monitoring Rekabi's safety. 'IFSC Climbing should engage with rights organizations to protect pro climber #ElnazRekabi and all Iranian athletes,' they wrote. 'Don't take the government in Iran's word at face value--it has a documented history of detaining, maiming & killing those who oppose it.'
House arrest, family denial and a second Instagram post
BBC Persian reports that Rekabi is now under "house arrest", although authorities claim that she is staying at home to rest, according to their source.
Speaking to the state-funded news website Tabnak, Rekabi's brother Davoud Rekabi reportedly said: "Elnaz is doing well and is staying at home with her family. There have been reports that she is not well, which I deny." It is not clear whether this interview was given under duress.
On Saturday evening, a photo was posted to Rekabi's Instagram account, in Persian and English, apparently thanking her supporters across the world. The English text reads:
'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 supports in international community: What I have gained till today was regarding the caring of you beautiful souls; and the future would not be a road without obstacles if you are not coming along. I sincerely thank all those who came to the airport for welcoming me, I love you.
Me; the people, Iran.'
The Persian section quotes a stanza of a poem from a collection called 'Dar Astaneh' (At the Threshold/On the Edge) by Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, a socialist and Nobel Prize-nominee who was slandered as a "traitor" and "Westernised writer". He left Iran before the 1979 revolution in protest against censorship and returned after the end of the Shah regime.
A global 'heroine'
Whatever her intention, Rekabi's act has made her a global symbol of the ongoing civil uprising in Iran against Ayatollah Khamenei's ultra-conservative regime and the recent decree to further limit women's freedoms signed by president Raisi in August. Her story has inspired artwork, a hashtag and widespread reports and profiles in mainstream media.
Commenting on the story, Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: 'Elnaz Rekabi's grasp is firm, but the Iranian government's retrograde restrictions on women are tumbling.'
Climbing athletes, groups and organisations have arranged solidarity events to raise awareness of Rekabi's action and situation.
UKClimbing has also received confirmation that an Iranian athlete, who was registered to compete in the IFSC Combined World Cup event in Morioka, Japan, last weekend and marked as 'Did Not Start', is safe, was not pressured to withdraw and currently lives outside of Iran.
Iran International TV reports that IOC President Thomas Bach made a direct phone call with Elnaz Rekabi upon her return to Iran, at the request of IFSC President Marco Scolaris. Bach asked Rekabi for monthly check-in calls and to inform him of any issues. Bach told Rekabi to continue her training and be ready to participate in Olympic qualifying competitions.
The TV channel reports that Rekabi is currently under house arrest at a relative's house without access to her mobile phone 'for her own safety.'
Thanks for keeping the news coming through. I didn't know about the 'power of attorney' clause but it doesn't surprise me.