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  • Writer's pictureNina Kolarzik

What Happened to Them? Part 1: Elnaz Rekabi

Occasionally, someone pops up in the news. Their name is mentioned, their story told, and they are linked to important political events or societal developments. And as suddenly as they appear in the spotlight of media attention, they disappear again. Observing this phenomenon I began to wonder: Why are these people and their lives of any interest? And what happened to them after they vanished from our screens? It is not just gossip. Their stories and how they are narrated—in the media as well as on the political and social stage—can reveal certain things about the systems we live in. More than that, individual stories are more emotional, hence more attention-grabbing, than general transmissions of information, and this attention can serve as a shield to protect politically persecuted individuals. Yet, the duration and nature of their telling reflect the attention span of society, and the people whose stories are told may be quickly forgotten, their protection or the attention to an important issue in their lives are linked to fading with our memory. 

In this series of articles, I bring to the spotlight four people who have been and disappeared from the news at some point, and who have caught my interest, starting with Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi.

In the headlines of news articles, she is known as “the climber who competed without a hijab.” Rekabi became widely known in October 2022 after competing in the final of the Asian Climbing Championships in Seoul without a hijab, which is obligatory for female athletes from Iran. Instead, she was wearing only a black headband. Her action at that particular point in time was interpreted as solidarity with the demonstrations following the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran. Videos of Rekabi in the tournament without a hijab went viral, and supporters of the protests used the footage, making her a symbol of the protests. 

The day after the competition, Rekabi’s whereabouts were unclear and she was reported missing. The only information available was that she had been with Iranian officials. The following day, Rekabi apologized for this incident in an Instagram post, writing that she had dropped the hijab by mistake. When she arrived with the rest of the team on the 19th of October in Tehran, she was welcomed by many people with applause. Again, when being addressed by the media, she explained that not wearing the hijab had been a mistake due to the hectic rush for her start, and apologized to the Iranian people for the tensions it had caused. 

However, human rights groups believe that these apologies and other statements were coerced by the Iranian regime. The National Olympic Committee of Iran ensured international sports institutions that Rekabi would not fear any consequences, and Iran’s sports minister Hamid Sadschadi said that she would stay in Iran and participate in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris if she was to qualify.

At the end of November of the same year, footage appeared of Rekabi’s demolished family home. While the time of filming is unclear, Iran’s official news agency claimed that the demolition took place months before Rekabi’s famous competition due to unauthorized land use and house construction.

In March 2023, Rekabi posted for the first time after months of silence on her Instagram account, wishing the Iranian people a happy Nowruz at the Iranian New Year’s celebrations. She had intended to go training in Spain during the holidays; however, she was hindered from leaving the country and her passport was confiscated. Officials claimed she had not taken care of her administrative matters. Some suspect that Rekabi might attempt to leave Iran permanently, as did the Chess Grandmaster Sarasadat Khademaldsharieh (Sara Khadem), who did not return to Iran after competing in a tournament in Kazakhstan in December 2022. 

The most recent news that I found about her is from the summer of 2023. In June 2023, she participated in the World Cup bouldering competition in Brixen in South Tirol, achieving a shared 41st place—this time with her hair fully covered. In the following week, she competed in Innsbruck where she placed 23rd. The most recent activity on her Instagram account was a story on the 8th of March 2024 about International Women's Day, with Rekabi commenting “Towards an equal world”.

On the 22nd of February 2024, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) published the list of climbers who will compete at the Olympic Qualifier Series in May and June 2024 for quota spots at the Olympics, on which Elnaz Rekabi’s name can be found. Will we see her this summer climbing in Paris? Whatever happens, she reminds us that women in Iran are still struggling. 

When individuals appear on the news and their stories are told in the media, it is at times easy to forget that they are more than symbols. Instead of being brief sensations that fade within a moment as our attention is diverted to the next headline, continued reporting on their stories reminds us that they are real, living people: Their stories do not end when media attention shifts but continue beyond that.

Written by Nina Kolarzik.

Photo of Elnaz Rekabi by Prachatai.


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