Suspected poisoning at Iranian girls’ schools leaves dozens hospitalized


Dozens of students in Iran were hospitalized for suspected poisoning this week, the latest in a string of mysterious cases in girls’ schools all over the country.

Emergency services in Pardis, on the outskirts of Tehran, transferred 37 schoolgirls for treatment on Tuesday, a school official told Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency. He said the students suffered from “mild poisoning” and added that all the girls are expected to recover.

On the same day, the activist-run Human Rights Activists News Agency reported that several other female students fell ill in the city of Qom, south of the capital, where many of the suspected poisonings have taken place.

Such incidents have been reported in 10 to 15 cities across Iran in recent months, Abdulali Rahimi Mozafari, a member of Iran’s parliament, said Tuesday, according to the Entekhab news website. The number of students affected across the country is unclear, but Zahra Sheikhi, a spokeswoman for Iran’s health commission, said Wednesday that 800 students had suffered “mild poisoning” in Qom alone in recent months, the reformist Shargh newspaper reported.

While some boys also appear to have fallen ill, the vast majority of cases appear to be at girls’ schools. No deaths have been reported.

Videos posted on social media Wednesday showed enraged family members protesting outside some of the affected schools in Tehran; in a video, a member of Iran’s security forces can be seen pulling a woman’s hair. Another video from the capital shows girls chanting “death to the child-killing government”.

“The deliberate poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran exposes the fanatical, lawless and violent mentality that is re-emerging under this irresponsible government, (which is) trying to force the whole country, especially women, backwards,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

In a visit to Qom on Tuesday, Iran’s health minister, Bahram Einollahi, said the poison was “very mild” and that the students’ symptoms included muscle weakness, lethargy and nausea, the Iranian Students’ News Agency reported. According to the Associated Press, some of the children described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning agents. Sheikhi, a spokeswoman for the health commission, said the poison appeared to have been inhaled.

Alireza Monadi, head of the parliament’s education committee, said Wednesday that health ministry tests had detected nitrogen gas in the poison spread at schools in Qom, according to the Hamshahri newspaper.

The cause of the poisonings is still unknown. Last week, Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri ordered an investigation, saying the spate of poisonings “indicates the possibility of intentional criminal acts.”

On Sunday, Iranian news channels quoted Younes Panahi, a deputy health minister, as saying that schools were deliberately targeted. He told reporters that the masterminds “wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed,” according to Iran’s Ettelaat newspaper. He later denied the comments, saying he could not confirm whether the poisonings were intentional or why they had taken place.

While education in Iran is only compulsory for children between 6 and 11, Iran’s government has a strong focus on education, with women accounting for more than 50 percent of Iran’s university students, according to the World Bank. Tehran has repeatedly pressured the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to lift the ban on girls’ education.

Students in Iran are risking everything to rise up against the government

Families of the affected students in Qom, an important site of Shiite shrines and scholarship, recently held a protest to demand that the authorities take action, Hamshahri reported.

The country has already been gripped by months of protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab in public. While the demonstrations started over women’s dress, they morphed into demonstrations against the country’s theocratic state, crossing age, gender, ethnic and class lines. It is not clear at this time if the suspected poisonings are connected to these protests.

Students have played a key role in the protests, and more than 700 of them have been arrested, according to the Volunteer Committee to Monitor the Situation of Detainees.

The authorities have launched a brutal response, with HRANA, the activist news agency, reporting that at least 530 protesters have been killed since the unrest began in mid-September. At least four protesters have been executed, while others have received death sentences.

Videos show evidence of escalating crackdown on Iranian protests

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