Concern for Elnaz Rekabi, Iranian athlete who competed in Seoul climbing competition without head covering

London — There was concern on Tuesday over the wellbeing of Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi, who competed in South Korea on Sunday without wearing the head covering required of all women by her country’s hardline Islamic government. Many took her public appearance without a headscarf or hijab as a sign of solidarity with the women-led protests that have raged in Iran for more weeks.

Iran has been rocked by massive anti-government demonstrations for more than a month. The most significant challenge to the Islamic Republic’s ruling regime in more than a decade was sparked by the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police. Her family say she was tortured and killed after being arrested for alleged violations of the country’s strict dress code for women. 

Human rights groups say Iran’s security forces have killed more than 200 protesters in a violent crackdown on the demonstrations.

In an initial event at the competition in Seoul over the weekend, Rekabi wore a bandana over her head, but in a later event she wore a headband with her ponytail showing. Under Iran’s harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law, all women are required to cover their hair in public, even athletes competing abroad. 

CBS News senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer said friends of Rekabi had said they believed the athlete deliberately chose not to wear a head covering in support of the protests, and after the competition, some voiced concern over being unable to contact her.

Sources told Palmer that after the video of Rekabi competing without a headscarf went viral, the climber was invited to the Iranian Embassy in Seoul on a ruse. Once there, she was stripped of her phone and passport and put on a plane to Tehran.

The Iranian embassy tweeted a photo of Rekabi, with her head covered, and said she had departed the country. It dismissed reports of her going missing as “false news and disinformation.”

Early Tuesday, a text-only Instagram story was posted on Rekabi’s account, saying that she had competed without a hijab accidentally.

“Due to inappropriate timing, and an unpredictable call for me to climb the wall, there was accidentally a problem with my head cover,” the post says. It also said Rekabi was flying back to Iran “according to the pre-arranged schedule,” and apologized for the “concerns created.”

As of Tuesday morning, Rekabi and other athletes staying at the same hotel in Seoul had all checked out, CBS News’ Jen Kwon in Seoul reported.

The BBC Persian service’s Rana Rahimpour reported there were concerns that Rekabi could be taken directly from the airport to prison upon her arrival in Tehran.

The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) said Tuesday that it was still “trying to establish the facts,” but had been in contact with Rekabi, BBC Persian reported.

“The IFSC fully support the rights of athletes, their choices, and expression of free speech,” it said.

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

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