Iranian Woman wins Math Genius Prize, Iranian officials Obsess about her Hair

By Golnaz Esfandiari

via RFE/RL

"No hair, no ears, no neck." That's how one journalist described a front-page portrait of Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani that an Iranian newspaper digitally doctored to obscure her hair and skin to placate censors in the Islamic republic.

The altered picture of Mirzakhani, who this week became the first woman awarded the Fields Medal, mathematics' equivalent of the Nobel Prize, was published in the Iranian reformist daily "Sharq," whose journalist tweeted the snarky quip about the manipulation of the image.

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Mirzakhani's achievement appears to have created a challenge for Iranian newspapers forced to follow stringent written and unwritten censorship guidelines concerning images exposed female skin and hair.

Women in Iran are required to wear the Islamic hijab to cover their hair and body, and newspapers and websites often digitally alter pictures of women to make them acceptable to censors and hard-liners.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton are among women whose photographs have been doctored by the Iranian media in recent years.  

Other images of Mirzakhani, a professor at Stanford, also appear to have undergone digital editing in order to be published by Iranian newspapers.

While some conservative media — including the hard-line "Kayhan" daily — completely ignored Mirzakhani's achievement, others posted an old picture of her wearing the hijab.

The government-run daily "Iran" appears to have photoshopped a scarf from an old photo of Mirzakhani onto a newer image of her without the hijab. The reason for the move was not clear. "It might be because they wanted to use a high-quality photograph, but weren't allowed to publish it without adding a veil," a web project hosted by the news channel France 24 noted.

Maryam Mirzakhani gets a head scarf.

Maryam Mirzakhani gets a head scarf.

The portrait of Mirzakhani published by "Sharq" reportedly underwent several rounds of alterations before it was approved by the newspaper's editors.

Iranian journalist Farvartish Rezvaniyeh posted images on Facebook showing the changes made to the portrait by artist Hossein Safi. The original portrait stands side-by-side with a version altered by the artist, which in turn stands next to the final version published by "Sharq."

Farvartish wrote that "Sharq" had asked the artist to change his original portrait to make Mirzakhani's hair less visible, adding that the final editing was done without the artist's knowledge. 

"Oops! Did we censor her picture? Seems we had to!" a journalist for the newspaper, Sobhan Hassanvand, wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Iran's "Hafte Sobh" newspaper cropped Mirzakhani's photo on its front page, leaving only her face and editing out her short hair.

Maryam Mirzakhani loses her hair.

Maryam Mirzakhani loses her hair.

In a statement posted on his official website, Iranian President Hassan Rohani congratulated Mirzakhani for winning the Fields medal.

"Today the Iranians can feel proud that the first woman who has ever won the Fields Medal is their fellow citizen. Yes! The most competent must sit at the highest position and must be the most respected," Rohani said in the statement.

Rohani's unverified Twitter account — said to be run by people close to him — posted a Tweet featuring two photographs of Mirzakhani side-by-side, one with a head scarf and one without.

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The tweet was met by cheers by some Iranians, who praised Rohani for posting an unveiled photograph of the mathematician.

Mirrored from RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

Posted in Iran,women | 8 Responses | Print |

8 Responses

  1. congratulations to this great woman and to her nation and culture which in part produced her genius. I am not a Muslim, but I have always thought that Islam proudly promotes science inquiry as well as mathematics. Literal repetition of rules developed in societies(often for good reasons) by any religion cannot be the only way to interpret sacred writings as the societies that produced the great religions change. Jews, Muslims and Christians, all have social limits on women in their ancient writings that need not be literally observed in order to follow the obligation of goodness that God commanded Prophets to spread.

  2. Iran is a complex and sophisticated country. While women are encouraged to become educated and enjoy many other rights, Iranian law does not reflect a western conception of individual freedom. However, most westerners would be surprised by the following:
    “Which country’s scientific output rose 18-fold between 1996 and 2008, from 736 published papers to 13,238? The answer – Iran – might surprise many people, especially in the western nations used to leading science. Iran has the fastest rate of increase in scientific publication in the world. And if political relations between Iran and the US are strained, it seems that the two countries’ scientists are getting on fine: the number of collaborative papers between them rose almost fivefold from 388 to 1831 over the same period.” link to

    • “it seems that the two countries’ scientists are getting on fine: the number of collaborative papers between them rose almost fivefold from 388 to 1831 over the same period.”

      Imagine if these were the newspaper headlines people read everyday.

    • Unfortunately further crippling US sanctions threaten the progress of Iranian students and future scientists elsewhere.

      Kaplan has to block stem cell courses and programs to Iranian students in the UK
      link to

      Expulsions of Iranian post-grads from Norway
      link to

      Some of them are female students with high-achievements. While female education is strong in Iran, they still face issues such as new policies in restricting their enrolment in some educational courses and programs. So the overseas alternative was needed.

  3. The advance of human freedom of expression is relentless and unstoppable. The best reaction to the fear of it is to let it pass.

  4. Not sure why my comment was deleted so I am reposting. What Iran is doing is no different than France’s ban on hijab in certain settings. Both involve control of women’s bodies.

  5. Rouhani also spoke up on the ridiculous situation when ‘happy’ was arrested.

    Either post the picture or don’t. The ethical implication of manipulating or censoring pictures to sell a lie seems to be lost on them…apart from celebrating the virtue of a high education or academic honour, at least amongst the hardliners. Iran needs to curb the nonsense in its actions if it wants to see an improvement in their image, which they can’t simply photo-shop.

    Even on needed policy to increase the population, the way they went about it with dramatic rhetoric and a complete u-turn in their policy, taking drastic measures to attack birth control was retarded. Probably part of the earlier rationale to restrict women on going on towards higher education.

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