Elnaz Rekabi is a champion for freedom-seeking Iranians, not only because of the medals she’s won in domestic and international climbing competitions, but because of her brave act of defiance. On 16 October, the 33-year-old athlete competed in the Asian Climbing Championships in Seoul without wearing a headscarf. Her exposed hair wordlessly shook the pillars of a government back home that has subjugated female bodies to establish its power.
Aware that her decision to forgo a headscarf could endanger her future, she seemingly chose to support the loud and clear “NO” that protesters across Iran have been saying to the oppressive Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) since 16 September. On that now historic date, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman called Jina Amini, officially known as Mahsa Amini, was killed by the regime’s “morality police”. Amini was detained and reportedly beaten for showing a few strands of hair, yet here was Elnaz with a ponytail, carrying the fears and desires of a nation on her back, climbing the seemingly impassable bouldering wall.
By removing the enforced head covering, the athlete joined the chorus in objecting to what it currently has come to symbolise – gender-based repression. By law in Iran, women have been denied the right to freely start or end a marriage, gain or share the custody of their children, choose their profession, or travel internationally, to name a few restrictions.
After Rekabi’s courage made headlines around the world, she went missing. Following hours of uncertainty, on 18 October a message appeared on her Instagram account claiming that her headscarf was “inadvertently” dropped. I wasn’t alone in believing that the post couldn’t have been created with free will. The international climbing federation stated it will “monitor the situation as it develops upon her arrival”. A UN human rights spokesperson said they would follow the case closely. In the early hours of this morning (19 October), a large group of Iranians welcomed her at the airport in Tehran to prevent her arrest.
At this point, further harassing Elnaz will only prove how terrified the regime is of acts of civil disobedience, big or small. Violent reactions to women’s exposed hair reveal that the IRI has built its very foundations upon repression, be it based on gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity or class. Hence, any demand for justice continues to be a horrid threat to the reactionary government.
Elnaz paid a price for her bravery, and might face even more serious consequences when international scrutiny, in the age of short attention spans, fades away. Nonetheless, she stands on the shoulders of her predecessors, women who have stood up to state terror. When Vida Movahedi, a mother in her thirties, stepped on to a utility box in Tehran with her hair uncovered, her white headscarf held aloft on a stick in December 2017, she was identified and arrested. After that, the city remodeled many of the capital’s telecom boxes to make them more difficult to climb. That clearly hasn’t worked. Despite all the efforts to “put women in their place”, Iranian women are champion climbers, literally and figuratively.
In the face of Iranian women’s remarkable determination, the regime has called the protesters “prostitutes”, “dust and dirt”, and agents of foreign countries. The peaceful protests for freedom – now in their fifth week – have been answered with bullets, beatings, insults and arrests.
Thus far, the crackdowns, denials and accusations have only exposed the regime’s utter incapability in dealing with dissent reasonably. But how long can such strategies go on? How many millions of people is the establishment going to beat and arrest? How many paid or brainwashed agents can look their compatriots in the eyes and call their demand for “women, life, freedom” a Western plot and not a deep-seated human desire?
There’s no skipping over the pain that countless Iranians have lately experienced; the tears, the terror, the trauma that may affect the generations to come. Yet the women of Iran are daughters of smoke and fire, and the repression only fuels their movement. Women like Elnaz Rekabi will inspire countless other women. So far, with every round of crushed protests, women have risen up stronger, more united, and more resilient and determined. With every Elnaz that’s suppressed, a thousand more sprout. A state that continues to treat such women as subhumans is doomed to expire.
[See also: How Mahsa Amini’s death sparked fury]