Maryam Mirzakhani, the most prominent Iranian scientist of our times, just passed away from cancer at the age of 40. She was the first woman and the first Iranian to win the highest honor a mathematician can receive, the Fields Medal, also known as the Nobel prize of mathematics.
Despite her many achievements and the public’s big interest in her, Mirzakhani was a very private person and stayed away from the media and the public eye. She also kept out of politics her entire life, but her tragic death has reignited two major political conversations in Iran.
The first conversation is on forced hijab and the state’s portrayal of Iranian women. For nearly four decades, the Islamic Republic has obliged all women in Iran, Muslim and non-Muslim, to cover their hair and bodies in public. Even foreign diplomats, journalists, businesswomen and tourists who visit the country must adhere to the rules.
Women have made some significant strides in Iran over the years, including the appointment of female vice presidents, the election of more members of parliament and the recent appointment of the first female CEO of Iran’s national airliner. The concept of hijab has also loosened considerably and many young women now wear bright colors, form-fitting outfits and scarves that barely cover their hair. Some even forgo the scarves entirely when driving in cars or going out in the evening. But women who work for the government must abide by stricter rules and the media promotes only one image of the ideal Iranian woman, and that is with hijab, preferably in dark or drab colors and all-concealing.
Iranian actresses wear hijab in film and television, even when their character is going to sleep. When they walk the red carpet at international film festivals abroad, they still wear some form of head covering and clothing that covers their arms and legs. Athletes must also wear hijab, even when they attend competitions abroad. This is required so that when the media publishes photos of these celebrities, they are adhering to the official image of Iranian women embraced by the state.
Mirzakhani’s prominence however, placed her above the norms of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s moderate President, Hassan Rouhani, and his vice president for women and family affairs both tweeted photos of Mirzakhani as she was, without hijab. Then the media got the courage to follow suit. Mirzakhani’s photos dominated Iranian front pages the following day, many of them without hijab. Even the conservative Hamshahri published her photo unretouched.
A young woman who was born, raised, and largely educated in Iran, Mirzakhani was a product of the Islamic Republic and someone of whom the state is very proud. Her work was not political, she was not a political person herself and there was no controversy around her. Also she always looked modest, with a short hairdo, very little makeup, and simple clothes. That definitely made it easier for the Iranian media to pick an appropriate photo.
Rouhani had already tweeted a picture of her without hijab when she won the Fields Medal in 2014. He congratulated her, saying that “Iranians can now be proud that the first female winner of the Fields Prize is their compatriot” and wished her happiness and success. Back then, the media didn’t have the courage to follow Rouhani. Newspapers either picked old photos of her with hijab from when she lived in or was visiting Iran or used sketches of her face that faded into the background without really showing much of her hair.
Mirzakhani’s death has reignited a second national conversation around another highly political issue: a discriminatory part of Iranian law that grants citizenship to children of Iranian fathers, not Iranian mothers. Under the current law, the child of an Iranian man and a non-Iranian woman is considered an Iranian citizen, even if he or she is not born in Iran. Even the child’s mother can become an Iranian citizen through marriage.
But the child of an Iranian woman and a non-Iranian man is not entitled to Iranian citizenship and if the child lives abroad, he or she need to obtain a visa to visit Iran. Mirzakhani was married to a Czech man. Their daughter, Anahita, is thus not considered Iranian by law. Every time she visits her grandparents in her mother’s homeland, she must apply for a visa as a foreigner.
The law also applies to children born inside Iran with limited exceptions. That includes hundreds of thousands of children of Afghan refugees who are undocumented and until recently, could not even attend school.
Multiple bills have been introduced in the Iranian Parliament to change the law but never got anywhere. The latest version was just approved by the Parliament this month but it is nowhere close to becoming final yet. Now Mirzakhani’s death has created a sense of urgency to finally end the discrimination. This will not only benefit her only child, but thousands of other children who live in Iran.
Negar Mortazavi is the Washington correspondent for Iran International. She tweets at @NegarMortazavi.