Hundreds of young Iranian girls have been poisoned in a series of mysterious gas attacks on schools across the Islamic republic, sparking fears that militant religious groups are waging a dangerous campaign against female education.
The wave of attacks began in November in the holy city of Qom, home to the highest clergy, but was kept from public view by the authorities, according to Iranian media. It has burst into the open this week as more schoolgirls have fallen victim to poisonings that have spread to other Iranian cities, including the capital Tehran.
Some of the affected schoolgirls have been admitted to hospital and it is unclear whether any of them have died as a result of the poisoning. Accounts on social media reported having difficulty breathing and vomiting, along with a burning sensation and paralysis in their legs.
The mother of a 15-year-old victim told the Financial Times that she arrived at her daughter’s school to find doctors treating sick students in an ambulance while others lay in the street waiting for emergency medical attention.
The motivations of the perpetrators remain unclear, but Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Younes Panahi said this week that the attackers wanted “to see all schools closed, especially girls’ schools.” Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice president, compared the attacks to those carried out by Boko Haram, the violent Nigerian militant Islamist group opposed to female education.
The targeting of girls comes in the wake of four months of street protests that erupted in September, with demonstrators calling for the Islamic Republic to be replaced with a new secular government. The unrest was sparked by the death of a 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for allegedly not following the correct Islamic dress code.
Women played a crucial role in the protests, under the rallying cry: “Woman, Life, Freedom”, with girls staging protests in their schools and removing their compulsory headscarves. Yashar Soltani, an investigative journalist, said the poisonings were an attempt to intimidate and punish girls who participated in the demonstrations.
Abdollah Momeni, a former student leader, said on Twitter: “What does such behavior mean other than scaring and scaring innocent girls?” He added that “the students are paying for their presence in the women, life, freedom movement”.
As the government came under increasing pressure to investigate, Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi urged people not to be misled by speculation. He gave no details on the number of schools or students affected, but MP Shahriyar Heydari claimed that at least 900 girls had been poisoned in various cities.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has called on the Ministry of Interior to investigate and find the “roots” of the attacks. MP Alireza Monadi said the drugs used included N2 gas, which he said quickly disappeared from the body thus making a diagnosis difficult.
Zahra, the mother whose 15-year-old daughter was poisoned, said she could smell what she thought was tear gas when she arrived at the school. “Families panicked and shouted that there were no school officials there to tell them what was happening,” said Zahra, who did not want to give her last name.
She said some of the families whose daughters were injured believed the perpetrators had links to the regime, and asked: “If not, why aren’t they arrested?”
The Fars news agency, a hardline news agency, said the poisonings were a conspiracy by the opposition based outside the country to provoke the “silent majority” who did not participate in the street protests but could join a new wave of demonstrations calling for a revolution. .
Zahra said it was difficult for her to accuse any side. “On the one hand, I think there are groups in this political system that are very capable of this level of atrocities. And on the other hand, their opponents are ready to commit any crime to defame the regime.
“Whoever is behind it, our children are clearly the new victims of this dirty power struggle.”