Elnaz Rekabi returned to Tehran from Seoul on October 19, greeted by a crowd of well-wishers who believe that, whatever story she is now forced to provide, she had deliberately not worn a hijab in her rock-climbing competition as a sign of solidarity with the protesters back in Iran who have been ripping off their hijabs and burning them.
But once in the clutches of Iranian officials who took custody of her in Seoul, she was pressured to provide another explanation for her hijab-less appearance at the competition. Rekabi folded, and on October 18 dutifully placed this message on her Instagram account: “Not wearing the headscarf during the competition in Seoul was unintentional, the result of an accident … Due to bad timing, and the unanticipated call for me to climb the wall, my head covering inadvertently came off.”
The problem with that explanation, as the Iranians must soon have realized, is that there are no photographs of Rekabi wearing the hijab before it supposedly “fell off.”
Then, when she arrived back in Tehran, Rekabi appeared In a video broadcast by the state-run IRNA news agency. The 33-year-old athlete offered a different explanation. No longer was she claiming that her jihad had fallen off accidentally. 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.”
So which was it ? Did the hijab accidentally fall off, as she first explained in an Instagram post, or did she forget ever to put it on, as she explained later, as she said at the airport on October 19? Both stories are almost certainly false, pressed on her by Iranian authorities. Many Iranians think she did mean to express solidarity with the protestors. The crowd that greeted her at the airport, chanting “Elnaz is a heroine” certainly had no doubts about her intention. And every Iranian knows, and understands, the kind of extreme pressure Rekabi was put under by a brutal regime so that she would give the “right” explanation. They understand that the regime made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: either repeat exactly what we tell you, or things will go hard not just with you – you may never be allowed again out of Iran to compete, you may even be imprisoned – but also with your family. Oh, yes, we almost forgot – your brother has been taken into custody. And so she did as she was told.
Ms. Rekabi also said at the airport that she was feeling “stressed and tense.” Of course she was: the malevolent Iranian state had been exerting extreme pressure to make her repeat their version of events. The words she used were probably not even her own, but provided by her implacable minders. Rana Rahimpour, of the BBC’s Persian Service, has said that to many Iranians, the language used by Rekabi looked as if it had been written under duress.
Other Iranian sportswomen who have competed abroad without wearing a headscarf in the past have said they came under pressure from Iranian authorities to issue similar apologies, she added. Some of them decided not to go back to Iran.
Many former detainees have also said that they were forced by security forces to make false “confessions” that were aired by Iranian state TV.
The Iranian government clearly has no idea how its handling of Rekabi makes it look, both foolish and sinister. Foolish, because the first version — the one they made her post on Instagram — about her hijab accidentally falling off, was palpably absurd. No photographs exist of her wearing the hijab at the competition before that claimed “accident.” Foolish, because they then had to come up with another explanation, equally implausible – that Rekabi simply “forgot” to put on the very article of clothing that she has put on every single day since she turned nine.
Sinister, because everyone in Iran, and plenty of people outside it, have been speculating as to the kind of pressure the Iranian government has put on Rekabi to make her explain away her original act of solidarity with the protestors and defiance of the government. What threats did this monstrous regime make? We now know that Rekabi’s brother has been taken into custody. How long will he be held hostage to ensure that his sister doesn’t address any protestors, keeps a low profile, and continues to stick to the script – “I just forgot to put my hijab on” – that her Iranian handlers forced her to read?
Rekabi’s story has now gone all over the world. It has legs. A story of quiet protest and forced recantation, putting one in mind of the 1930s Purge Trials in the Soviet Union, or of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where enemies of the state – Russian and Chinese – were forced to publicly recant. Had you put “Elnaz Rekabi” name into an Internet search engine a week ago, you would have a few thousand hits. Today I searched for “Elnaz Rekabi” and there were 27,000,000.