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Sports cliimber Elnaz Rekabi prevented from leaving Iran

  • April 06, 2023

When Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi attempted to board a plane bound for Spain last week, airport officials prevented her from doing so.

According to the Iranian exile television station Iran International, the officials confiscated Rekabi’s passport and told her to visit the prosecutor’s office to obtain an exit permit after workers returned to work following the Nowruz (New Year’s) festival. The 33-year-old Rekabi had intended to travel to Spain for training ahead of next summer’s Olympic Games in Paris.

Reza Zarei, head of the Iranian Climbing Sports Federation, blamed Rekabi for the incident, saying that she had failed to attend the registration office to ensure that her travel papers were in order.

Nevertheless, his federation and the country’s National Olympic Committee have said that they intend to ensure that the climber can qualify for the Paris Games. Zarei said the plan was to allow Rekabi to compete at the World Climbing Championships in Bern, Switzerland in August, and at the Asian Games, which open in Guangzhou, China in September.

Silence broken 

Rekabi used the start of the Persian New Year on March 21, to post a photo on Instagram for the first time in five months. The photo shows her in a crowd wearing a baseball cap. The caption: Happy Iranian new year. With the best wishes for my people, Iran.

Rekabi had made headlines around the world last October when a video showing her climbing with her hair uncovered in the final of the Asian Championships in South Korea, went viral. Tehran’s rulers require female Iranian athletes to wear headscarves – even when competing abroad – and there is no sign of the regime relaxing such regulations anytime soon. Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently stressed that there could be no flexibility on the requirement that women wear head coverings.

“Rejecting the hijab is forbidden and constitutes a political statement,” Khamenei said. “There is a plan by the enemies [of Iran] behind this.” 

Rekabi’s appearance without a hijab at the Asian Championships was widely interpreted as a show of support for the protest movement in Iran. The demonstrations were sparked by the death of young Iranian Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody last September. For months now, Iranians have not only been protesting against discrimination against women, but also demanding an end to the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Apology or forced confession? 

After Rekabi returned to Tehran from Seoul last autumn, she apologized for not having worn a headscarf during the competition, explaining that it had been an oversight as she rushed to get to the climbing wall.

However, many observers saw the public statement as an indication that the athlete had been put under massive pressure by the Iranian authorities. Foreign media reports said she had been placed under house arrest. 

Iranian taekwondo fighter Parisa Farshidi, who lives in exile in Germany, told DW that it was a “forced confession” by Rekabi. This was the last that was heard of the climber until her message on the Persian New Year.

Iranian chess star Sara Khadem speaks from exile in Spain

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Could it be that the Iranian authorities feared that Rekabi was intending to leave Iran permanently with her husband? After all, chess grandmasterSarasadat Khademalsharieh (Sara Khadem for short) who played without a hijab at the rapid chess and blitz world championships in Kazakhstan last December, failed to return to Iran. She has since been living with her husband and son at a secret location in Spain.

In January, Khadem accepted an invitation to play a chess match against Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, an event that made headlines around the world. Afterwards, Sanchez wrote on Twitter that the examples set by female athletes like Khadem were contributing to “a better world.”

Iranians know Elnaz Rekabi’s apology was coerced: Journalist Maziar Bahari

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This article was originally published in German

Edited by: Jonathan Harding

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