Maryam Mirzakhani, winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, is the first woman—and the first Iranian—be honored for outstanding achievements in mathematics.

The award, 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. And now, for women around the world, Mirzakhani’s achievement represents what one newspaper described as the fall of “one of the last bastions of male dominance”.

Iranian academics have rushed to congratulate Mirzakhani. Bahman Mehri, a veteran mathematics professor at Sharif University of Technology—where Mirzakhani once taught and is thought of as Iran’s MIT—celebrated her success on Facebook. In the words of Iranian female blogger Somayeh Touhidlo, currently studying for a doctoral degree: “It is time to be proud.”

Another academic, professor of mathematics at University of Illinois – Chicago, Ramin Takloo, spoke of ongoing male dominance in science and mathematics. “Even the slightest bias against women” has been able to  “derail the chances of a perfectly deserving candidate”, he said.

For many, Mirzakhani’s life and achievements encapsulate the contradictions inherent in educated, middle class Iranian life. Born and raised in Tehran, she studied at Sharif University of Technology—where the most accomplished academics taught the brightest and most promising students in the country—and later at Harvard, finally rising to professor at Stanford. At the same time, she has had to contend with the restrictions placed on women in Iran, despite her education, social standing and clear talent. 

 

The Newroz Crash of 1997

Many from Iran’s scientific community know that this might never have been. Mirzakhani may not have ever been recognized for her work. They remember the terrible events of March 1997. It was a few days before the Iranian new year, Nowruz, and classes and schools were beginning to close down in anticipation of the country’s biggest holiday. A group of parents gathered outside the red brick building of the administrative department at the University of Sharif. There had been a coach crash involving students, who were returning from the University of Ahvaz, which had hosted a mathematics competition for students around the country. "Why did you let them go on a dangerous bus on a road like that?” one parent shouted to the university’s chief of staff. There were rumors of a tired driver without back-up, a damaged tire.

Maryam Mirzakhani was one of those students, her whole future ahead of her. She was lucky, but others were not. Six students had been killed and Mirzakhani spent her holiday in a hospital in Dezful with scores of fellow injured students. But she survived.

 

One of the Great Mathematicians of Our Time

Even in 1997, Maryam Mirzakhani was a familiar name in Iranian academia. She had graduated from Frazangan High School, participating in a program for talented students, where she had made it to the National Team in the Mathematics Olympiad. She was the first Iranian girl to ever win a gold medal in mathematics and the only student to win it twice.  One of her classmates described Mirzakhani as a modest “math genius,” who never thought she would be able to pursue mathematics as a career. Maryam Mirzakhani finished her first research paper while an undergraduate student at Sharif University.

At Harvard, she was known for her “fearless ambition” according to Kurt McMullen, her advisor. She began working on geometric surfaces with McMullen, himself a Fields Medalist. McMullen later told a reporter from Quanta Magazine, “She would formulate in her mind an imaginary picture of what must be going on, then come to my office and describe it. At the end, she would turn to me and say, ‘Is it right?’ I was always very flattered that she thought I would know.”

Mirzakhani 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, was outstanding. “Even without a Fields Medal, Maryam is one of the great mathematicians of our time.”

 

Igniting the Hejab Debate

But, in all these celebrations and acclamations, where was Iran’s media? It was only when President Hassan Rouhani tweeted his congratulations that papers took notice—and this is because Rouhani’s tweet was accompanied by two photos: one of Mirzakhani wearing a hejab and the other showing her bareheaded, both set against a background of the Iranian flag. The post says so much beyond its 140 characters: it’s the story of Mirzakhani’s career, from long coats and headscarves at the University of Sharif to short, uncovered hair at Stanford.

And it shows the extent of Iran’s “free press”: the president can publish a photograph of an accomplished woman without a hejab on social media, but it’s not so easy for the press. So most papers had to do with the hejab photo from many years ago; others had an imaginative approach and published close-angle shots of more current photographs or showed her emerging from shadows, her head still covered by darkness. Rouhani’s message to Professor Mirzakhani? National asset or not, Iranian media cannot show a photograph of a woman as she appears in real life.

It would be naïve to think this is just an official concern. Web users from across Iran gave their opinions, posting on websites including KhabarOnline.com and Tabnak.ir. “She would not have received this medal had she been a proper hejab-wearing Muslim woman,” said one, attracting dozens of responses, many of them condemnatory. Such bitter exchanges demonstrate just how difficult it is to have a national debate on women’s issues in Iran.

A large number of Iranian academicians and activists hope that Mirzakhani’s success inspire others. Takloo hopes “the example of Mirzakhani, and not her legend, inspires Iranian students and students everywhere to take math and other sciences more seriously”. Rahmandad hopes this award breaks more barriers for young Iranians. He said. “Maryam's achievement shows that social and political barriers cannot stop motivated individuals”. He thinks Mirzakhani’s story is more inspiring when one remembers what kind of resources Iranian students had in the aftermath of a long war in the 1980s and 1990s.

Her journey has been truly remarkable: from an injured student by the side of the road to a mother of a three-year old who cannot get an Iranian passport for her child, in many ways Maryam Mirzakhani has lived the life of an Iranian woman even though she lives outside the country. She has been celebrated for her academic achievements, but at the same time, has had to face enormous challenges as a woman and an academic.

Like hundreds of Iranian women, she is married to a non-Iranian. Her daughter is not considered Iranian. As Iranians celebrate her achievement and her recognition, many will also be reminded of the very debilitating and repressive barriers Iranian women continue to face.

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