Oct. 26 marked 40 days of protests in Iran set off by the death of Mahsa “Jina” Amini after she was seized by the so-called morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly in Tehran.
As young women have led the country in public demonstrations against Iran’s oppressive conservative regime that’s been in power since the Islamic revolution in 1979, 33-year-old Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed at the Asian Championships in Seoul earlier this month without a hijab. The move sparked immediate concern for her safety and fear that she might be jailed for the act. A video statement circulated on social media shortly after, in which Rekabi claimed her head covering fell off and apologized for the mistake.
Rekabi was met with overwhelming support when she arrived at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran after the competition, but she’s remained silent ever since and her whereabouts are unknown.
The US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) and other sources suspect the Iranian government coerced Rekabi into rescinding her subtle act of protest.
Jasmin Ramsey, a former jouranlist and current deputy director at CHRI, has been paying close attention to Rekabi’s case. We asked her to weigh in on what the treatment of Iranian women athletes like Rekbai can tell us about the broader fight to end gender inequality in the country.
Global Citizen: Rekabi made a statement claiming her hijab slipped off and apologized. Advocates are convinced the government forced her into doing so. What kind of safety risks do women athletes currently face?
Jasmin Ramsey: Iranian athletes, especially major athletes, they're supposed to make a deposit to the government before they go abroad because so many of them, like so many people in the country, want to escape the repression. So they try to kind of get a security deposit from them in various forms of funds. It’s different numbers for different athletes.
I think the thing to focus on is that the scale of political repression in Iran is so high that everyone, including athletes, is becoming advocates for fundamental human rights. And if anyone knows the context in Iran, any person that publicly criticizes state policies and has a public platform, a large audience, any person like that gets targeted by the state in various ways.
This wasn't a mistake. There's no way that anyone would make such a mistake when this is a massive issue in your country. It was a choice that she made.
There's no way that they can just escape the arms of the government. They're under their thumb inside the country and they're under the thumb of the government outside the country.
In the case of Elnaz Rekabi, she was kind of whisked away from the moment that all of this happened because the video caught world attention. It went viral very fast. And if you just consider everything that's happened since that point, she's never been able to make a statement alone. She's always surrounded by state security forces. They took her straight from the airport after that long flight and that long ordeal and made her stand for pictures with sports officials, all of the men. And so they're really trying to make her a symbol of the state when really she said that she's actually completely opposed to the state, that's what she's done through this courageous act.
Right now, women in Iran are banned from entering sports stadiums and soccer games are happening without audiences to prevent protests. Why are women at sporting events seen as such a threat to the Iranian regime?
We're seeing really amazing acts of courage, of women risking their lives, [showing that] they're not going to do this anymore. Elnaz is part of that group of women. The state is terrified of women. They're absolutely terrified of them and they're trying to keep them down by force. But it doesn't seem to be working.
What role do you see sports playing in the movement to liberate Iranian women?
Iranian women have beendefying state laws that infringe upon their fundamental rights for decades in various ways. And one of the ways that they have done that is through sports, also just through just basic acts like walking in the street, showing a lot more hair in your hijab, and now taking the hijab off completely.
I think sports is one tool that Iranian women have been using to express opposition and repressive state policy. They're teaching the world how [to do that] in a country where all your movements and everything that you do occurs under the thumb of the repressive state. How do you use different things in society to speak out against that? They use sports to do that.
How would you like to see the international community support Iranian women athletes and Iranian women in general?
It was honestly heartbreaking to see the International Federation of Sports Climbing and other sports bodies kind of just buying the Iranian government's propaganda about her [Rekabi] while she's clearly not been allowed to do anything since that day in Seoul. It would be wonderful if they could actually issue a statement of concern for her, rather than constantly issuing statements saying that they believe everything the Iranian government says, which is what they've done so far. There was no attempt by them to reach out to rights organizations or to actually verify that what she was saying was being done freely. And so there's still time for them to do so. They should stand by her and they should express concern for her. They shouldn't let the Iranian government just kill the story.
There were some athletes around the world that expressed concern, if they could start, doing this as a collective call for not just Rekabi’s freedom, but for the right of all women to be able to dress and act and engage in whatever sports they want in Iran without the threat of jail or repression or beatings or killings. That would be wonderful if there was a collective outcry against this.
The most important thing is to remember that no one in Iran is free to criticize the state without extreme consequences.
There's one part [of her statement] where she says there was a lot of tension and stress. She's signaling to the world in whatever way she can that she's not free at this moment and we need to stand behind her. She did what she could at that moment in Seoul, that bold display of defiance. And now it's our responsibility as the international community to support her and echo her — and not just her, but the demands of all Iranian women.
I just want to make that clear. She's one person. And she actually, because of her sort of her celebrity, she has like one layer of eyes on her that are not on so many women in the streets that have been beaten and arrested and killed. And so it would be great to note that it's not just about her. It should be about what she's actually trying to do, which is bringing attention to the women's rights movement inside her country.
We are concerned for the safety of climber Elnaz Rekabi.— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) October 18, 2022
The government in Iran should stop killing, detaining, and forcing women + girls to apologize for showing their hair.
Listen to the people: "Woman, Life, Freedom!" #زن_زندگی_آزادی#Mahsa_Amini#مهسا_امینیpic.twitter.com/6ssq2oqA0X
What would you say to everyday citizens who want to stand in solidarity and maybe don't know how they can help Iranian women right now?
So, I think keeping this story in the limelight. When the Iranian government took her away, took away her phone, took away her passport, and then made her sit in photos for propaganda purposes, what they're really trying to do is shut down the story.
The fact that you're echoing this, these women's calls for freedom, is very important. That's what average people can do. We don't need to do anything beyond that. It's up to the people where this goes, but they need support. And the Iranian government keeps trying to press these stories, keeps trying to change the story, to hide the facts. And the most important backing up of that is the internet is blocked. I mean, even before these protests, the internet was always censored in Iran. They really tried to isolate people from the world, but they haven't been successful and they're just trying to silence a massive part of the population.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.