Skip to main content

In March, as a female mathematician, skilled astronomer and noted professor left her university near Cairo, a mob surrounded her. They attacked and brutally killed her, burning her body. The thought of a woman engaging in philosophy and mathematics so outraged local religious leaders that there was no penalty for her killer.


This happened 1,500 years ago, but even today, religious issues, ethnic prejudices, and political divisions have historically prevented the progress of women in science and society in general.

Recently I needed to find a book for my research in mathematics, Introduction to Lattices and Order, by H.A. Priestley, a professor at Oxford University, but I am unable to get it easily, if at all, because of sanctions against my home country, Iran: Many websites that ship books online do not mail to Iran, and someone even told my American collaborator that he could wind up in a cell just for communicating with me.

This is a shame, because Professor Priestley’s book is actually one that would help foster the kind of culture the American government should like to see in Iran, and elsewhere: H.A. Priestley is that rare creature, a prominent female mathematician.

Of course, politics and religion have adversely affected male mathematicians, too: The Iranian logician Jamshid Derakhshan, who started a doctorate at Oxford University at age 17, originally wanted to attend UC Berkeley, but there was no US embassy in Iran so he went to England. And the UC Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel, who became a professor of mathematics at Harvard at age 21, describes how he could not get into one university in Russia because of anti-Semitism. But female mathematicians can face additional barriers."Mathematics has always been my passion and ambition since I was a child. It has always occupied most of my time and I never had any desire in my life other than to be a mathematics researcher. In chasing my passion, I tried so hard and got admitted to the university. It is difficult in Iran.

We have to compete in a comprehensive entrance examination in which millions of people participate. This is held only once a year for about 5 hours. Anyone who gets a higher percentage can study in a better university. Fortunately, I could study in one of the top ten universities in Iran. During my studies, I have been repeatedly confronted with the kinds of issues you can imagine and some you might not, for example, related to my hair. They bothered me, very much, but they could never stop me from achieving my goals.

In 2005, the president of Harvard University gave his own thoughts concerning why “Professor Priestleys” are so rare, why are there no women amongst the winners of the Fields Medal, which since 1954 has been considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics: 90% of the winners of international Olympiads in mathematics, physics and chemistry are male and 98% of Nobel laureates in physics. Such statistics may lead one to believe that men are more talented than women in mathematics.

Hypatia, the mathematician from Egypt, might posit otherwise.

Researchers of the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the United States examined the level of knowledge and performance of students in different countries and compared math scores of male and female students. In Sweden, Norway, and New Zealand, there is practically no difference between boys and girls in terms of mathematical skills and talents. So the biological thesis is refuted.

Researchers who have studied standardized test results country by country have found that the gender gap in mathematics is much smaller─or non-existent─in societies that benefit from more gender equality. For example, Sweden, Norway, and New Zealand are amongst the top seven countries in the world in terms of gender equality.

I urge you to close your eyes and imagine a world in which women of different colors and nationalities, regardless of any restrictions due to religious and ethnic prejudice and the political war of governments, are able to work on mathematical matters. A world where the number of women in mathematics is not less than the number of men. Imagine a world where a human being can travel anywhere with ease, acquire any book, in order to do research. Imagine equations of peace.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

This dream excites me not just because I use my mathematics to analyze, and thus hopefully help prevent, terrorism, but also because of a program called Equations of Peacethat brings together female mathematicians from cultures and countries that seem far apart because of religious or political divisions. We can indeed use mathematics and science, as U.S. President Barack Obama has suggested, to bridge the divide between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.

For my part, I am doing my best to conduct research and continue my education in a prominent international university, and also I will do my best to attract more women into the field of mathematics.

Perhaps Danica McKellar, an advocate for women in mathematics, will take advantage of the recent thaw in Iranian-American relations, and come as an ambassador to my university in Iran, to echo the words of the Persian poets Hafez and Saadi.

The rise of women’s rights will result in both boys and girls being more gifted in math in coming generations. This will benefit both men and women, thus our world, as a whole.


وا ماندگی اندر پس دیوار طبیعت

حیف است دریغا که در صلح بهشتیم

چون مرغ بر این کنگره تا کی بتوان خواند؟

یک روز نگه کن بر این کنگره خشتیم

ما را عجب از پشت پناهی بود آن روز

که امروز کسی را نه پناهیم و نه پشتیم...

Zeinab Bandpey

Republished with permission from The Berkeley Daily Planet