Elnaz Rekabi’s return from a competition in South Korea sparked alarm among activists and rights groups, with the country gripped by 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.
In a video broadcast by the state-run IRNA news agency, the 33-year-old athlete appeared to repeat an earlier explanation posted to her Instagram that said she had unintentionally competed without a hijab.
Speaking to journalists in Farsi at an airport in the capital, Tehran, Rekabi said: “I was busy putting on my shoes and gear when I was called to compete and I forgot to put on the hijab I had with me.”
She can be seen in the video wearing a baseball cap with a black hoodie covering her hair.
Separate videos posted on social media and verified by NBC News show a crowd clapping and chanting at a terminal at the Imam Khomenei International Airport and again as a white van drives past.
The circumstances under which the interview and the Instagram message were delivered remain unclear. NBC News could not independently verify if Rekabi wrote the message herself.
The Islamic headscarf has become a focus of weeks of social unrest that have engulfed Iran and developed into the most serious challenge to the government in more than a decade.
Rekabi did not wear the hijab during Sunday’s final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship, in which she finished fourth.
Given that female athletes from Iran always wear a hijab while competing abroad and Rekabi had previously done so herself, her appearance without the headscarf was interpreted by many observers as a display of solidarity with the protesters at home.
Human rights groups expressed growing fears for her safety Tuesday as it emerged she was flying home from South Korea.
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.
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.
Rekabi is not the first female Iranian involved in competitions abroad to face issues after appearing in attire that violates the dress code.
Boxer Sadaf Khadem was 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.
Iranian chess referee Shohreh Bayat who fled to the United Kingdom in 2020 and claimed asylum after being accused by an Iranian official of not wearing her headscarf correctly while refereeing that year’s Women’s World Chess Championship in Shanghai.
“What happened to me was that after one round, one round of the tournament, I received a message that the hijab is not proper,” Bayat said in an interview Tuesday. “The next day I decided to fight against it,” she said, explaining she decided to push the headscarf back “to send the message that leave me alone because I’m tolerating it already with difficulty.”
Bayat, 35, said she saw parallels in Rekabi’s situation, especially after the Instagram post.
“This was exactly the same thing that happened to me,” she said, explaining that she was forced to write an apology for not wearing the hijab correctly. “This was the first thing that I was asked to do, to write an apology letter on Instagram.”
Bayat also said that she was told to give interviews to two Iranian state-run news agencies and to blame photographers for publishing the photos showing her not wearing the hijab correctly. “And they told me to tell that all my achievements was because of the Islamic regime,” she said.
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.
Helena Skinner, Meagan Fitzgerald and Yuliya Talmazan contributed.