Iran breaks with hi­jab tra­di­tion to mourn its ‘queen of maths’, Maryam Mirza­khani

Only woman to win Fields medal dies at 40 of can­cer Pres­i­dent posts In­sta­gram shot with­out head cov­ered

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Saeed Ka­mali De­hghan Iran cor­re­spon­dent

Iran’s state-run news­pa­pers yes­ter­day broke with the coun­try’s strict rules on fe­male dress to show the math­e­ma­ti­cian Maryam Mirza­khani with her head un­cov­ered, as the coun­try mourned the death at the age of 40 of the woman known as the queen of math­e­mat­ics.

Trib­utes were led by the pres­i­dent, Has­san Rouhani, who posted a re­cent pic­ture of Mirza­khani on In­sta­gram with­out a hi­jab. “The griev­ous pass­ing of Maryam Mirza­khani, the em­i­nent Ira­nian and world-renowned math­e­ma­ti­cian, is very much heartrend­ing,” he wrote.

Mirza­khani, a Stan­ford Univer­sity pro­fes­sor, died in hos­pi­tal in Cal­i­for­nia on Satur­day af­ter can­cer in her breast spread to her bone mar­row. The univer­sity pres­i­dent, Marc Tessier-Lav­i­gne, said Mirza­khani’s in­flu­ence would live on in the “thou­sands of women she in­spired” to pur­sue maths and sci­ence.

When in 2014 she be­came the first woman to win the Fields medal, of­ten de­scribed as maths’ No­bel prize, Ira­nian news­pa­pers dig­i­tally re­touched Mirza­khani’s pho­to­graph to put a scarf over her head while oth­ers pub­lished a sketch show­ing only her face. Iran’s strict laws on fe­male dress re­quire all women to be cov­ered in pub­lic.

Yes­ter­day’s front page of Hamshahri, a state news­pa­per, par­tic­u­larly stood out, win­ning praise for por­tray­ing her as she had lived. “Maths ge­nius yielded to al­ge­bra of death”, read its head­line over a pic­ture of Mirza­khani with­out a hi­jab. “The queen of math­e­mat­ics’ eter­nal de­par­ture”, read the head­line of Donyae-Eqte­sad’s head­line.

The Fields medal, first given in 1936, is awarded to ex­cep­tional tal­ents un­der the age of 40 once ev­ery four years. Mirza­khani won the prize in 2014 for her “out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions to the dy­nam­ics and ge­om­e­try of Rie­mann sur­faces and their mod­uli spa­ces”.

Chris­tiane Rousseau, vice-pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Math­e­mat­ics Union, said at the time it was “an ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ment” and com­pared it to Marie Curie’s No­bel prizes in physics and chem­istry at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury.

In an­other sign that Mirza­khani was break­ing more taboos even af­ter her death, a group of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans in Iran yes­ter­day 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.

Mirza­khani is sur­vived by her Czech sci­en­tist hus­band and her daugh­ter but a mar­riage be­tween an Ira­nian woman and a non-Mus­lim man was pre­vi­ously not recog­nised, com­pli­cat­ing vis­its to Iran by their chil­dren. Fars news agency re­ported on Sun­day that 60 MPs were press­ing for the amend­ments so that Mirza­khani’s daugh­ter could visit Iran.

Mirza­khanai was born and raised in Iran. She stud­ied at Tehran’s pres­ti­gious Sharif univer­sity and later fin­ished a PhD at Har­vard in 2004.

She had sur­vived a bus crash in Fe­bru­ary 1998 when a ve­hi­cle car­ry­ing the math­e­mat­i­cal elite of Tehran’s Sharif Univer­sity back from a com­pe­ti­tion in the western city of Ah­waz skid­ded out of con­trol and crashed into a ravine. Seven award-win­ning math­e­ma­ti­cians and two driv­ers lost their lives in the crash.

Mirza­khani and at least two other sur­vivors later left their coun­try, un­der­ly­ing Iran’s long-stand­ing brain drain dif­fi­cul­ties.

“A light was turned off to­day, it breaks my heart … Gone far too soon,” said Firouz Naderi, an Ira­nian Nasa sci­en­tist. “A ge­nius? Yes. But also a daugh­ter, a mother and a wife.”

Tessier-Lav­i­gne, the Stan­ford pres­i­dent, de­scribed Mirza­khanai as “a bril­liant math­e­mat­i­cal the­o­rist, and also a hum­ble per­son who ac­cepted hon­ours only with the hope that it might en­cour­age oth­ers to fol­low her path.”

Ed­ward Frenkel, Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley pro­fes­sor and the au­thor of the New York Times best­seller Love and Math, tweeted: “RIP #MaryamMirza­khani – a great math­e­ma­ti­cian and won­der­ful hu­man be­ing who broke a glass ceil­ing and in­spired many, men and women alike.”

Mirza­khani pre­dom­i­nantly worked on geo­met­ric struc­tures on sur­faces and their de­for­ma­tions.

A state­ment from Stan­ford said she “spe­cialised in the­o­ret­i­cal math­e­mat­ics that read like a for­eign lan­guage by those out­side of math­e­mat­ics: mod­uli spa­ces, Te­ich­müller the­ory, hy­per­bolic ge­om­e­try, Er­godic the­ory and sym­plec­tic ge­om­e­try.”

In a rare 2008 in­ter­view, with the Clay Math­e­mat­ics In­sti­tute, Mirza­khani said as a child she dreamt of be­com­ing a writer and did poorly at maths at school.

“I never thought I would pur­sue math­e­mat­ics un­til my last year in high school,” she said, cred­it­ing her older brother for get­ting her in­ter­ested in maths and sci­ence.

Pic­ture: Stan­ford/EPA

Some Ira­nian front pages broke strict pro­to­col by mark­ing Maryam Mirza­khani’s death with front page pic­tures of her with­out a hi­jab

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