After Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in South Korea without a headscarf, athletes who had previously challenged the country’s theocratic regime braced themselves for what was to come. The meaning of his act was clear.
Apprehensions grew when Rekabi briefly appeared to miss; her friends mentioned that they had trouble contacting her. Then a strange Instagram post attributed to her emerged explaining that her hijab had inadvertently fallen off. When she landed in Iran early Wednesday, she was greeted by crowds hailing her decision to compete without the hijab. But Rekabi’s remarks at the airport repeated the stilted explanation of his transgression, widely believed to have been committed under duress.
Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi competes in the women’s Boulder & Lead final during the IFSC Asian Climbing Championships, in Seoul on October 16, 2022.
Rhea Khang – International Sport Climbing Federation / AP
The flashpoint with Rekabi is another incident fueling nationwide protests that were first sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of vice police; she was arrested for “inappropriate hijab”. Rekabi’s decision to compete without her hijab and the reasoning that her actions were not an act of protest fits into the pattern that many Iranian athletes and protesters say they faced when authorities intervened. ‘State. Other athletes who have fled Iran for political reasons note that authorities are quick to harass their family members and pressure individuals to make forced confessions. Iranian female athletes in particular have been punished and closely monitored regarding their sexuality, social media activity and whether or not they wear the hijab.
“We know she is under a lot of pressure. This is nothing new for us,” says Sardar Pashaei, a former wrestler who fled Iran for the United States in 2010, of Rekabi. “Athletes speak out and they cross the red lines of the Islamic Republic.” He says Rekabi’s recent statement was consistent with how the Iranian regime has treated former athletes and protesters. “As soon as they are arrested, we don’t know them for a few days, then they appear on TV and start talking against themselves.”
Pashaei, a former head coach of the country’s national team, says he was banned from leaving Iran to compete in the pre-qualifying Olympics because his father was a political prisoner. Pashaei is also the executive director of the United for Navid campaign, which grew out of the efforts of Iranian athletes trying to protect wrestler Navid Afkari following his involvement in anti-government protests. The campaign has frequently called on the International Olympic Committee to punish Iran for its repressive treatment of athletes.
Iran executed Afkari, 27, in 2018 despite outcry from international human rights groups. The state had sentenced him to death for the killing of a security guard during the 2018 protests, although Afkari maintained his confession was coerced through torture.
Iranians in Canada demonstrate against the execution of wrestler Navid Afkari by the Iranian regime, in Toronto, September 15, 2020.
Soheila Farahani, a former Iranian national volleyball player, is one of many Iranian women who have chosen to leave the country, even if it means being separated from their families. Farahani, who identifies as a lesbian, fled to California seven years ago after her sexuality came under intense scrutiny. Iran criminalizes homosexual activity and has sentenced LGBTQ activists to death. Iranian security officials were questioning Farahani about why she was unmarried and living alone. “I thought if I didn’t flee the country now, I would be put in jail or executed,” said Farahani, a member of United for Navid.
Athletes are closely monitored while abroad. “As an Iranian athlete, when you go to international sports, there are always security guards watching you…you are not allowed to go anywhere,” Pachaei says. “You are monitored even during hotel stay and they often take your passport.” However, some manage to escape.
Just last year, Iranian handball player Shaghayegh Bapiri defected to Spain saying there was no future for female handball players in the country, Voice of America reported. Bapiri, who was in the country for the International Handball Federation women’s world championship, denounced the regime’s restrictions on her ability to speak freely.
Kimia Alizadeh, the only Iranian woman to win an Olympic medal, left the country in 2020, citing hypocrisy and the regimes’ oppression of women.
“Whatever they said, I wore… Every sentence they ordered, I repeated,” Alizadeh, who won a bronze medal for taekwondo in 2016, wrote in a lengthy Instagram post from 11 January 2020.
Until Rekabi’s actions, the uproar following Amini’s death in the sports world was largely confined to football. Iranian authorities have confiscated soccer icon Ali Daei’s passport after he supported protests over Amini’s death. (His passport has since been returned.) Iran has also charged former Bayern Munich player Ali Karimi in absentia with supporting anti-government protesters in widely shared social media posts. Karimi is now based in Dubai.
Kimia Alizadeh of the Refugee Olympic Team celebrates after competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on July 25, 2021.
Current players of Iran’s national football team covered their country’s emblem during the national anthem played in a September match against Senegal, following Amini’s death. Striker Sardar Azmoun expressed his support for the protests on his Instagram account, noting that he fears it could lead to his dismissal from the national team.
And under the Islamic Republic’s puritanical rules, Iranian women are routinely barred from soccer stadiums – a longstanding issue that has caught the attention of international human rights groups. In September 2019, Iranian football fan Sahar Khodayari died after setting herself on fire outside a courthouse. She had been tried for trying to enter a stadium disguised as a man.
United for Navid has called on FIFA to ban Iran from participating in the World Cup, pointing out that Russia was banned from participating following its invasion of Ukraine.
Pashaei and other advocates wrote in an Oct. 18 letter to FIFA President Gianni Infantino that membership in the Iranian Football Federation should be suspended until it ensures women can enter. stadiums across the country and participate in all competitions organized by the world governing body of football.
“It is impossible to separate the men’s team of the Iranian Football Association from Iran’s widely criticized government leadership; they are one and not truly independent; otherwise, the football ecosystem would have been a safe space for women and women would have been allowed to participate,” the letter reads.
The regime has been pressuring athletes and famous Iranians for decades, “but right now it’s getting more and more aggressive,” said Farahani, Iran’s former national volleyball player. And it’s now possible that Rekabi is under some of that same pressure.
Pashaei says that based on how the Iranian regime has responded to politically outspoken athletes in the past, he thinks Rekabi may have faced an ultimatum: “You have two choices: either you decide not to return in Iran, and you lose your relationship with your family. Or you have to make a forced confession and do whatever they tell you.
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