Maryam Mirzakhani, winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, is the first woman — and the first Iranian — to be so honored for outstanding achievements in mathematics. You’d think the Iranian press would be proud. But not until President Hassan Rouhani tweeted “Congrats” did Iranian papers took notice — and then the public debate focused on the two pictures included with Rouhani’s post: one of Mirzakhani wearing a hejab in Iran and the other showing her bareheaded, as she is now in the United States, both set against a background of the Iranian flag.
The post says so much beyond its 140 characters and it suggests the extent of Iran’s “press freedom,” or the lack of it. The president can publish a photograph of an accomplished woman without a hejab on social media, but it’s not so easy for journalists. So most papers had to do with the hejab photo from many years ago while a few took a more imaginative approach and published closely cropped current photographs or showed her emerging from shadows, her head still covered by darkness. National asset or not, winner of what’s called “the Nobel Prize for Mathematics” or not, Iranian media cannot show a photograph of the woman as she appears in real life.
Web users from across Iran gave their opinions, not of her work, but of her scarf. “She would not have received this medal had she been a proper hejab-wearing Muslim woman,” said one, attracting dozens of angry responses that show just how difficult it is to have a national debate on women’s issues in Iran. And that also sell short — very short — an extraordinary mathematician’s very real accomplishments.
The Fields Medal, presented to the Stanford professor at a ceremony in Seoul on August 12, was established in 1936, and has been presented every four years since 1950, always to men. So Mirzakhani’s achievement represents what The Guardian described as the fall of “one of the last bastions of male dominance.”
When she was 17 she was the first Iranian girl ever to win a gold medal at the International Mathematics Olympiad and when she was 18 she became the only student to win it two years in a row.
But Mirzakhani’s journey of discovery almost ended with a terrible accident. She was studying at Sharif University of Technology, which likes to think of itself as Iran’s MIT, with the most accomplished academics teaching the brightest and most promising students in the country.
Mirzakhani, who is now a professor at Stanford, studied hyperbolic surfaces, creating a formula to estimate the number of lines for a surface of a given length. She also solved two other problems — on the volume of the so-called “moduli” space and about a long-debated mystery around topological measurements, moduli spaces and string theory. One of the most impressive achievements, says University of Chicago mathematician Benson Farb, is that she linked these findings. Solving each of these problems would have been an achievement on its own, he said. The fact that she linked them together was truly remarkable.
Her doctoral thesis, says Ramin Takloo at the University of Illinois, was simply outstanding. “Even without a Fields Medal, Maryam is one of the great mathematicians of our time.”
Now, as Iranians celebrate Mirzakhani’s achievement and her recognition, many will also be reminded of the repressive barriers Iranian women continue to face no matter how great their accomplishments.