Hundreds gathered at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport early Wednesday morning to give a warm, celebratory welcome to competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi who was scheduled to arrive back in Iran amidst reports that Iran’s regime had her passport and phone seized after she competed in the Asian Championships in South Korea without a hijab.
Rekabi, 33, was greeted with cheers of “Elnaz is a hero!” particularly as many feared she would not come back home safely or may still face threats of detention.
Rekabi left the airport in a taxi minivan passing through the crowd, according to video footage obtained by The Foreign Desk. At this time it is not clear whether she went home or to another location.
BBC Persian reported that early on Monday that Reakbi’s friends were unable to contact her after reports circulated that Islamic authorities seized her passport and phone after the incident in South Korea.
Rumors whirled in the last 24 hours about her whereabouts and possible detention once she arrived back in Tehran.
Photographs of Rekabi went viral with many applauding the athlete’s bravery in competing without a headscarf.
On her Instagram page, Rekabi posted a one page written story to apologize to her followers for worrying them with her disappearance and saying that she did not mean for her hijab to come off, blaming herself for tying it loosely. The story ends with Rekabi telling her followers not to worry because she is flying back to Iran with her team.
While the message comes from Rekabi’s account, many experts strongly believe she wrote the statement under threats from Islamic authorities.
“Comments like these are often forced by the regime as an apology or confession. The tone of her statement on Instagram very much has these elements, particularly with all the rumors about her imminent arrest. We still do not know what her fate will be and whether the regime will take her into custody for competing on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s team abroad,” said Lisa Daftari, Editor and Chief of the Foreign Desk and Iranian American expert.
“Elnaz made a courageous statement of solidarity with her fellow Iranian women protesters who are using every opportunity on any platform- on social media or in athletic competitions- to make their voices heard,” said Daftari.
The demonstrations over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by the Islamic morality police over her hijab wear have sparked a new revolution in Iran not seen since 2009. Iranian American actors and influencers in the U.S. have taken to social media outlets and marched alongside ordinary Iranian Americans in Los Angeles, New York, D.C. and elsewhere to stand in solidarity with the protesters.
Meanwhile the regime continues to engage in harsh crackdowns throughout the country, ordering security forces to beat, arrest, and kill citizens, athletes, celebrities, journalists, writers, teachers, and others who speak out against the government.
Since the uptick of protests, the Islamic Republic has faced scrutiny and sanctions from the international community over its harsh crackdown on Iranian citizens.