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6 March 2023

Who is poisoning schoolgirls in Iran?

More than a thousand have been affected by what authorities say are deliberate toxic gas attacks.

By Megan Gibson

It’s hard to imagine that daily life could seem more threatening for women and girls in Iran, many of whom have, for months now, been leading anti-regime protests sparked by the September murder of a 22-year-old woman by the country’s so-called morality police for incorrectly wearing her veil. Then came the poisonings.

As many as a thousand girls across the country have been hospitalised following mysterious gas attacks at their schools. Exact details of the poisonings – and who might be behind them – are still unclear, but the first apparent incident took place in November, in the city of Qom, south of Tehran. Since then, more than 30 schools have faced similar attacks across the country, with the majority of poisonings happening within the past week. Hospitalised girls have been suffering from symptoms like struggling to breathe, heart palpitations and numbness in their limbs.

Though many officials and activists have now said that it is clear the attacks were deliberate, there is little consensus on what chemical, precisely, was used; students have reported smelling “tear gas“, “tangerines” or “chemicals” in their schools before falling ill. Alireza Monadi-Sefidan, chairman of the parliamentary education committee, said on 28 February that the Health Ministry had identified nitrogen gas in some of the schools. (There has also been speculation that some of the cases could be the result of “mass sociogenic illness“, in which the very real symptoms have a psychological trigger – such as anxiety – rather than a physical one.)

There was little coverage in Iran of the initial attack in November (press freedom is severely limited in the country following years of repression), but as the number of incidents has increased in recent days, so too has the public outrage. When Iranian officials were at last spurred to address the attacks, several blamed extremist religious groups. On 26 February, the deputy health minister Younes Panahi said that it was “evident that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed down”. The apparent initial attack taking place in Qom – a holy city that’s home to most of the senior clergy – seemingly lends some credence to that theory.

And yet many activists have blamed the regime itself for the attacks, arguing that the targeting of schoolgirls is a specific punishment for the prominent role they’ve played in the demonstrations since September. Though the protests have been widespread and drawn support from all segments of society, it is women and girls who have led the movement under the rallying cry of “women, life, freedom”, boldly pulling off their headscarves and burning them in the streets. The regime has spent months working to stamp out the demonstrations: authorities have beaten and killed those demonstrating; protesters have been detained, convicted and even executed for their role in the movement. Poisoning hundreds of schoolgirls – either in retaliation or as a means of scaring them off from further participation in demonstrations — doesn’t seem that far out of step with the violence many activists, journalists and human rights groups say the regime already leans on.

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No matter who is behind the poisonings, if their ultimate motive is to scare the public off protesting they appear to have miscalculated. On 4 March Reuters reported that dozens of parents of schoolgirls protested in Tehran and other cities across the country against the lacklustre official response from authorities; the protests soon evolved into anti-regime protests, with chants comparing the country’s security forces to the Islamic State. Iran’s supreme leader, the ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that perpetrators of the attacks should be “severely punished”, yet there is little faith the regime will pursue a thorough investigation. The anger continues to swell.

This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out every Monday; subscribe here.

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