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Iranian rock climber returns home after competing without a hijab

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi was given a hero's welcome when she returned to Tehran early this morning. Rekabi had just competed in a competitive climbing event in South Korea without wearing the mandatory Islamic headscarf or hijab. She said the lack of headscarf was inadvertent. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, the move happened as women across Iran are demanding changes to the country's religious restrictions on women's dress.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting, inaudible).

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It may have been 5 in the morning when Rekabi's plane touched down at the Tehran airport, but that didn't stop a huge crowd from gathering to welcome and cheer her on.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting, inaudible).

KENYON: But it seems clear that Rekabi is not looking to become the latest symbol of Iranian women standing up to the regime and demanding more freedoms. From the start of the controversy, Rekabi has maintained that this was no deliberate act of defiance. She said in the rush to get her gear together and be ready for the climb, the hijab got left behind. In an interview with Iranian state television, Rekabi maintained that explanation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELNAZ REKABI: (Speaking Farsi).

KENYON: Rekabi told the journalist the atmosphere was hectic, and her invitation to climb came unexpectedly. She said she got busy arranging her technical climbing equipment, and in part because she was in a women's-only area, in her haste, she forgot the hijab. When a follow-up question focused on the political reactions to her climb, Rekabi seemed flustered, saying only, quote, "some extremism happened in the story." She apologized to the Iranian people and said she hoped to continue competing and looked forward to another climb.

But if Rekabi herself just wants to be an Iranian athlete, others are happy to hail her as a symbol of a new generation of Iranian women who aren't willing to go along with the social restrictions imposed by Iran's cleric-led government. Maryam Rajavi, a leader of the NCRI, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, seized on the widespread public attention being paid to Rekabi's climb to declare that Iran is facing what she called a forward-looking revolution led by women. And she called for some of the most extreme measures short of the use of military force.

MARYAM RAJAVI: First, all the embassies of the Iranian regime must be shut down, and all the diplomats of Iranian regime have to be expelled. Iranian regime should be expelled from all international bodies, and all economic ties must be severed.

KENYON: Analysts say nothing that dramatic is likely to occur anytime soon. But the nationwide protests and the reaction to Elnaz Rekabi's case seem to have caught the government in Tehran on the back foot. Observers inside and outside Iran are watching to see if the unrest will begin to die down or if another harsh crackdown is in the offing.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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