Irish Examiner view: Female athletes taking a stand

Elnaz Rekabi
Irish Examiner view: Female athletes taking a stand

 Iranian competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without a hijab, disobeying the Islamic Republic’s restrictions for female athletes.

The disappearance of Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi has uncomfortable echoes of other recent cases in which female athletes have suffered unduly because they have taken a stand.

At the Tokyo Olympics last year, Belarus Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was awarded a humanitarian visa from Poland after being threatened with repatriation to Minsk because of her criticism of Olympic team officials.

Rekabi, representing Iran at the Asian Climbing Competitions finals in Seoul, competed without hijab, disobeying the Islamic Republic’s restrictions for female athletes — a powerful gesture given the ongoing demonstrations in Iran following the death five weeks ago of Mahsa Amini, who was detained by Iran’s morality police because of her clothing.

Early reports suggested Rekabi had been put on an early flight back from Seoul to Iran, but the story took another twist when she issued an apology on Instagram apologising for the “worries that I caused” and stating that her headwear had “inadvertently” caused an issue for her climbing.

Observers may detect a similarity here with another case in 2021, when tennis star Peng Shuai accused a retired Chinese official of sexual assault — and then disappeared from public view. The Chinese authorities were questioned about her whereabouts but deflected the questions — until Peng herself featured on state media two weeks later denying that she made the allegations in the first place.

In Rekabi’s case, the regime in Iran is clearly struggling to quell internal resistance, with many women signifying their opposition to religious strictures by cutting their hair and burning their headscarves in public. The fact that the athlete has sought to clarify her situation may not convince an international community with experience of the Peng and Tsimanouskaya cases.

However, what exactly can the international community do in response is a question with no clear answer.

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