Iranian media broke social taboos by portraying the celebrated Iran-born mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani without a hijab in tributes after her death.
Covering the hair with a hijab in public has been mandatory for women since the country’s 1979 revolution.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani led the bold move by posting a picture of Mirzakhani on Instagram without a hijab a day after her death. “The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heartrending,” he wrote.
درگذشت اندوهبار مریم میرزاخانی، #نابغه نامدار #ریاضی ایران و جهان موجب تأثر فراوان شد. درخشش بینظیر این #دانشمند خلاق و انسان متواضع که نام ایران را در مجامع علمی جهانی طنینانداز کرد، نقطه عطفی در معرفی همت والای #زنان و جوانان ایرانی در مسیر کسب قلههای افتخار در عرصههای گوناگون بینالمللی بود. اینجانب ضمن ارج نهادن به خدمات علمی و آثار ماندگار این فرزند فرهیخته ایران، مصیبت وارده را به جامعه علمی کشور و خانواده محترم آن عزیز از دست رفته صمیمانه تسلیت میگویم. #مریم_میرزاخانی (۱۳۹۶-۱۳۵۶) #فرزند_ایران
State-run media followed suit. Hamshahri, a centrist newspaper owned by the municipality of Tehran, and reformist economic daily Donyaye Eghtesad both used full-blown portraits of Mirzakahni with her head uncovered. “Maths genius yielded to algebra of death” read Hamshahri’s headline while Donyaye Eghtesad’s declared: “The Queen of Mathematics’ Eternal Departure”.
Mirzakhani, a Stanford University professor, passed away in California on Saturday, July 15, at the age of 40 after a four-year battle with breast cancer. She was the first woman and the first Iranian to be awarded the Fields Medal, given to exceptionally talented mathematicians under the age of 40 every four years.
She won the medal in 2014 for her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”. When Mirzakhani received the award, some Iranian newspapers reported the news but digitally edited her photograph to put a scarf over her head, while a few others published a sketch showing of just her face.
Mirzakhani immigrated to the US in the early 2000s to pursue her PhD, eventually becoming a professor at Stanford University in 2008. She is survived by her Czech scientist husband Jan Vondrák and daughter Anahita. Marriages between Iranian women and non-Muslim men are not recognised in Iran, complicating visits by their children.
But Mirzakhani’s death is pushing the boundaries of this social taboo too. On Sunday, a group of parliamentarians urged the speeding up of an amendment to a law that would allow children of Iranian mothers married to foreigners to be given Iranian nationality, allowing Mirzakhani’s daughter to visit Iran.