Tehran. A large crowd at Tehran airport greeted an Iranian sport climber who competed without a headscarf at a competition in South Korea, calling her a “heroine”.
Elnaz Rekabi, 33, broke Iran’s strict dress code – but later said her hijab had fallen off “inadvertently”.
Many are sceptical about the reason she gave in an Instagram post and repeated in a state TV interview at the airport, believing it was made under duress.
Iran is gripped by protests against the hijab laws and its clerical leaders.
Iranian women are required to cover their hair with a headscarf and their arms and legs with loose clothing.
Female athletes must also abide by the rules when they are officially representing Iran in competitions abroad.
Rekabi flew in from South Korea before dawn on Wednesday, where she had been competing at the IFSC Asian Championships.
According to media reports, her family met her at the airport, where she was hugged and handed several bunches of flowers. She covered her hair with a black baseball cap and hoodie.
Videos on social media show hundreds of supporters outside the terminal clapping and chanting “Elnaz is a heroine” as she arrived.
State media later broadcast an interview with Rekabi, in which she repeated the explanation she had given in an Instagram post for climbing with her hair uncovered.
“I was suddenly and unexpectedly called on to compete while I was at the women’s locker room,” she said.
“I was busy wearing my shoes and fixing my equipment and forgot to wear my hijab, which I should have worn.”
Rekabi said there had been “some extreme reactions” to the video of her appearance sporting a ponytail, and that she was “feeling stressed and tense”.
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. Some of them decided not to go back to Iran.
The Iranian protests were sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested by morality police in Tehran on September 13 for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely. The police denied reports that she was beaten on the head with a baton and said she suffered a heart attack.