Iranian authorities say they are investigating the poisoning of hundreds of schoolgirls across the country.
The mysterious incidents may have been deliberate attacks aimed at preventing girls from seeking an education, officials said in recent days, after downplaying the issue. Girls and young women have played a leading role in the protests that have rocked the Islamic Republic.
Local media suggest the poisonings have been going on for months and have involved dozens of schools in various cities, forcing young students to be taken to hospital after reporting the smell of gas.
A wave of new cases were reported on Wednesday, including a number of poisonings of high school girls in the capital Tehran, according to the semi-official Fars news agency. Emergency forces were dispatched to the scene with parents claiming some kind of spray in the school was the cause of the poisoning, Fars reported.
More than 100 students were also hospitalized in the northwestern city of Ardabil, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency, after students from seven schools reported smelling gas.
Iranian Police Chief Ahmad Reza Radan said on Tuesday that no one had been arrested yet.
“Our priority is to find the origin of the poisoning of the students, and until then we will not judge whether it was intentional or not,” he said in an interview with the semi-public news agency. -official ISNA.
But Deputy Health Minister Younes Panahi said on Sunday that the poisoning of schoolgirls in the holy city of Qom – one of Iran’s largest cities south of Tehran – and the western city of Borujerd, was not accidental and was due to people wanting to close girls’ schools.
“What is clear is that both in Qom and Borujerd it is a deliberate problem,” he told a press conference, according to Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB. “The poisoning of students in Qom was intentional and caused by available chemical compounds. Some people wanted all schools to be closed, especially girls’ schools.
Panahi added that the poisoning was due to a chemical compound which has not yet been identified, according to the IRIB. “The poisoning caused to the students was very mild and did not cause any complications for anyone,” he reportedly said. “They had symptoms of lethargy and weakness for several hours.”
“It has been revealed that the chemical compounds used to poison the students are not chemical warfare…the poisoned students do not need aggressive treatment and a large percentage of the chemical agents used can be treated.”
A special committee has been appointed to investigate the poisonings and toxicology experts have been consulted, Panahi added.
At a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, President Ebrahim Raisi tasked the interior minister with leading an effort to find the cause of the poisonings and coordinate a response, according to ISNA.
MP Alireza Monadi, who sits on parliament’s education committee, also said the poisonings were “intentional”, according to the official IRNA news agency.
“The existence of the will of the devil to prevent girls from going to school is a grave danger, and it is considered very bad news,” he said, according to IRNA.
Schools in at least 10 to 15 towns were struggling to deal with poisoned pupils, MP Abdolali Rahimi Mozafari said, according to the parliament news agency, Khane Mellat. Meanwhile, poisoning cases have been reported in about 30 schools across the country, according to the Associated Press, which cited local media.
The first cases emerged in late November in Qom, according to the news agency, with students from the Noor Yazdanshahr Conservatory falling ill, then falling ill again a month later. Parents in the city have been pulling their children out of classes in recent weeks, the AP reported, citing Shargh, a Tehran-based reformist news site.
Monadi said after an investigation that nitrogen gas appeared during testing in schools, Khane Mellat reported.
Although there is no clear evidence to suggest who might be behind the poisonings, critics of the Iranian government say authorities in Tehran are ultimately to blame.
“These attacks are the result of the Iranian government’s own policy,” said Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Like the Iranian government, the people who carry out these attacks are petrified by the power of Iranian schoolgirls; of what Iran could become if these girls had a say in government policy.
“These despicable attacks by ignorant fundamentalists in Iran – aimed at preventing schoolgirls from accessing education as well as gaining independence from male domination – are the result of the Iranian government’s policy of preventing women from to have the same rights and status in society as men,” she added.
Some have said without providing evidence that the recent spate of poisonings could be an act of ‘revenge’ for the unrest that erupted across the country when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in a hospital after being detained by the vice police, who accused her of breaking Iran’s strict dress code.
Female students in schoolyards and classrooms were at the forefront of Iran’s protests, as they resisted strict dress codes by removing their headscarves and confronting officials.
“The poisoning of schoolgirls is revenge by the Iranian terrorist regime against the brave women who made compulsory hijab the flag and shook Khomeini’s Berlin Wall,” Iranian activist and journalist Masih Alinejad tweeted on Sunday..
Another activist, Hossein Ronaghi, said on Twitter that: “In a structure where a citizen is beaten and detained by an army of soldiers for writing a story or graffiti against the government, it cannot be said that the deliberate and organized poisoning of Iranian girls is arbitrary and without information .”
“Attacking female students and harassing them is an attack on the future of all Iranian people,” said Ronaghi, who said he was released on bail in November after being jailed during authorities’ crackdown on protests.