The shocking death from cancer of mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani has resulted in tributes poring in for her from all over. In 2014 she became the only female winner of the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics. She was born and raised in Iran and came to the US for graduate study, where she married a non-Muslim Czech scientist with whom she had one child. She had been initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 but it had later spread to her bone marrow.
The fact that she did not follow Muslim orthodoxy in dress did not prevent her from being praised in the Iranian press.
Her death on Saturday in a hospital in California dominated front pages in Tehran, with a number of newspapers breaking with tradition and publishing photos of her without a head covering – a rare tribute that showed her prominence overrode rules requiring all Iranian women to be covered in public. Mirzakhani died after breast cancer spread to her bone marrow.
When the Stanford University professor won the Fields medal in 2014, state-run newspapers had digitally retouched her photograph to put a scarf over her head while others published a sketch showing only her face.
The Sunday front page of Hamshahri, a state newspaper, particularly stood out, winning praise for portraying her “the way she was”.
There was an exceptional outpouring of tributes to Mirzakhani both in Iran and outside. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said: “The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heartrending.” Rouhani also retweeted an image of her bare-headed.
In another sign that Mirzakhani was breaking more taboos even after her death, a group of parliamentarians in Iran on Sunday 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.
She had narrowly escaped death once before.
In February 1998, a bus bringing 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. One of the survivors was Maryam Mirzakhani.
Even in death, Mirzakhani is breaking taboos.