“In this case, she is dead,” said Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian American former director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “Because she’s no longer around, whether they print a picture with or without a hijab doesn’t make a difference for people. It’s not relevant as a policy issue.”
The centrist state newspaper Hamshahri ran a full portrait of Mirzakhani without a hijab, under the headline “Math Genius Yielded to Algebra of Death.” The reformist daily Donyaye Eghtesad did the same, with an accompanying headline that read “The Queen of Mathematics’ Eternal Departure.”
Another reformist daily, Shargh, showed her wearing a hat and dubbed her “The Queen of Numbers Land.” The Iran daily showed her without a hijab but used photo editing to fade her dark hair into a black background. Only ultraconservative newspapers Resalat and Keyhan didn’t splash her image on the front page, according to PRI; Keyhan printed a photo of her wearing a headscarf on an inside page.
Esfandiari added that the emotion many Iranians felt for their world-famous “genius” and “queen”—pride mixed with grief—was so intense that it overrode modesty rules: “People admire her for her achievements and for who she was … and there is a serious sadness around the country, that a young woman who was so promising died of cancer at an early age.”
Masih Alinejad, a Brooklyn-based Iranian writer known for launching the Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom (the campaign encourages women in Iran to post pictures of themselves without a hijab, and has more than a million followers), suggested there was a different underlying motivation in the way some Iranians are claiming the mathematician as part of their national mythology. She was especially dubious about Rouhani, who was quick to publish a photo of a hijab-less Mirzakhani on Instagram.
“Why didn’t they publish her unveiled picture when she was alive?” Alinejad asked. “Now, when she’s gone, they’re trying to own her, in a fake and disgusting way. They want to publish this to show the world, ‘See, we broke the taboo!’—to use this opportunity to show that they’re moderate.”
Rouhani came under fire from Alinejad and other activists when, in 2014, Mirzakhani’s image was Photoshopped in Iranian newspapers. Alinejad said that her campaign had “named and shamed” the president and the offending media outlets online, and that Rouhani began to feel the heat as he was repeatedly confronted on the compulsory hijab issue over the past few years. In 2015, a journalist in France presented him with one of the My Stealthy Freedom photos and asked if he found it offensive. More recently, at this year’s Oscars, an Iranian TV station’s decision to censor the image of Anousheh Ansari as she accepted The Salesman’s award for Best Foreign Language film ignited social media outrage around the world. The president is facing not only international pressure, but also internal pressure—for instance, in the form of White Wednesday protests, during which women wear white and demonstrate in public against the dress code.