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Concerns grow after an Iranian competitive climber competes without a hijab

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

There's growing concern about an Iranian climber who left South Korea after competing in a climbing event without wearing the mandatory hijab. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that so far, there are more questions than answers about what happened after the competition and where that climber is now.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Images and videos posted online appear to show 33-year-old Elnaz Rekabi competing in a climbing event wearing a headband but not the hijab, which the Iranian government requires all female athletes to wear at sporting events. Multiple news outlets reported that Rekabi left Seoul Tuesday morning and is expected to be taken directly to Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. The story has been marked by changing, sometimes contradictory, versions of events. After initially being reported as missing, other reports said she had been tricked into going to the Iranian embassy in Seoul by the head of Iran's climbing federation and from there was taken out of South Korea.

At one point, a message was posted to Rekabi's Instagram account, which read, quote, "I am sorry I made you worry about me. Due to mismanagement and the unpredictable situation, at last minute, my clothing was not appropriate. Now I am coming back to Iran." But questions were raised almost immediately about whether that statement had been coerced by Iranian authorities and whether it had even been written by Rekabi at all. Iran's embassy in Seoul weighed in, condemning what it called, quote, "all the fake, false news and disinformation" about Rekabi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KENYON: The incident comes amid weeks of spreading protests sparked by the death of a young Iranian woman in police custody. Chants of death to the dictator rang out at demonstrations, many led by women, that have spread from the Kurdish northwest of Iran to cities across the country. The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini sparked some of the most persistent, intense protests against Iran's clerical regime in more than a decade. Iranian leaders have tried to portray the demonstrations as being engineered by the country's foreign enemies, especially the United States. But Iranians from all corners of the country continue to take to the streets to make their protests heard. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.