Why Iran Broke Its Strict Hijab Rules for the ‘Queen of Math’ – Sigal Samuel


Famed mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, who died Friday, was memorialized without the headscarf.

Maryam Mirzakhani will be remembered as a woman who broke glass ceilings in life and in death. In 2014, the Iranian mathematician became the first and only woman ever to win the Fields Medal, popularly known as the Nobel Prize of the math world. And when she died last Friday at age 40, some Iranian media outlets, as well as President Rouhani himself, broke a national taboo by publishing photos in which she appeared with her hair uncovered.

In Iran, women have been required to wear the hijab in public since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian women rarely appear without the headscarf in the press. Mirzakhani, who grew up in Tehran but attended graduate school at Harvard and became a professor at Stanford, did not wear the hijab.

When Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal three years ago, Iranian newspapers went to extreme lengths to avoid showing her hair: They either digitally retouched her photo to add a hijab, published dated photos in which she appeared wearing one, or drew a sketch of her wearing one. But this past weekend, when the news that she had died of breast cancer at a U.S. hospital dominated the front pages of most newspapers in Iran, some of them finally allowed her to be pictured as she had lived. Mirzakhani had two things going for her this time: She had become a source of deep national pride. And she had passed away.

“In this case, she is dead,” said Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian American former director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “Because she’s no longer around, whether they print a picture with or without a hijab doesn’t make a difference for people. It’s not relevant as a policy issue.”

The centrist state newspaper Hamshahri ran a full portrait of Mirzakhani without a hijab, under the headline “Math Genius Yielded to Algebra of Death.” The reformist daily Donyaye Eghtesad did the same, with an accompanying headline that read “The Queen of Mathematics’ Eternal Departure.”

Another reformist daily, Shargh, showed her wearing a hat and dubbed her “The Queen of Numbers Land.” The Iran daily showed her without a hijab but used photo editing to fade her dark hair into a black background. Only ultraconservative newspapers Resalat and Keyhan didn’t splash her image on the front page, according to PRI; Keyhan printed a photo of her wearing a headscarf on an inside page.

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