Climber Who Competed Without Hijab Is Cheered on Return to Iran

Elnaz Rekabi, whose appearance without a head scarf at an event in Seoul raised fears about her future, was welcomed home by crowds in Tehran. Her motivations, and her fate, however, remain unclear.

The pictures seemed reassuring: Hundreds line the road at Tehran’s main airport, cheering and chanting Elnaz Rekabi’s name as the minibus carrying her slowly weaves through the jubilant crowd. “Hero, Elnaz!” cries the throng of men and women, young and old, gathered outside the terminal, their rhythmic and thundering claps echoing across a neon-lit forecourt.

The hero’s welcome in the early hours of Wednesday morning for Ms. Rekabi, an athlete who was a relatively obscure figure in the international sports climbing world until a few days ago, was documented in video footage that was widely circulated on social media and on Iranian news outlets.

Concern for Ms. Rekabi had flared after she made global headlines on Sunday for climbing at an international tournament without a hijab, defying Iran’s strictly enforced dress codes for female athletes. That action thrust her into the center of the protest movement in Iran, in which women have taken center stage in the antigovernment rallies.

Iran has been gripped by protests since September, in what has spiraled into the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic in over a decade. The demonstrations were ignited by the arrest and subsequent death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was accused by the country’s morality police of wearing her hijab too loosely. The police have denied reports that she was beaten while in detention, saying that she suffered a heart attack, though her family says that she was healthy when she was arrested.

Against that backdrop, Ms. Rekabi’s motivations, and her fate, remain unclear.

As Ms. Rekabi landed in Tehran, footage from an Iranian agency, Borna News, showed her being embraced by her family. Their reunion appears warm though perhaps subdued, with a few concerned gazes. “Let’s go, let’s go,” says a man as he ushers Ms. Rekabi away, grabbing a bouquet of flowers that has been handed to her. The man’s identity and relation to Ms. Rekabi are unclear.

In an interview on state-run television, Ms. Rekabi appeared calm but serious, covering her hair with a black baseball cap and hooded sweatshirt. “I apologize to the Iranian people for the tension I caused,” she said. “Thank God nothing has happened yet,” she added.

Ms. Rekabi denied reports that she had gone missing in recent days and repeated a claim posted on Tuesday to an Instagram account connected to her that she had only forgotten her hijab. “It happened totally unintentionally,” she told reporters.

The New York Times was not able to verify whether Ms. Rekabi had made the Instagram post herself. Iran has been widely criticized by rights groups in the past for forcing activists to publicly make coerced confessions.

Although it remains uncertain whether her competing without a hijab act was deliberate, if the footage from the airport is any guide, many Iranians appear to have already made up their minds and adopted Ms. Rekabi as a hero of the country’s protest movement.

Ms. Rekabi said that she intended to continue competing. “There is no goodbye. I will continue as long as I can continue according to my beliefs,” she said in the interview with state-run TV. She was then whisked away from the airport. The Times was unable to confirm her destination or current whereabouts.

Amid a brutal crackdown by Iranian security forces, at least 240 protesters have so far been killed, including 32 children, and nearly 8,000 others have been arrested, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency.