Written by Ivel Sestopal
In the past months, there have been approximately 300 separate attacks taking place in more than 100 girls’ schools across Iran, elementary, middle, and high schools. The first reported attack took place on November 30th, 2022, in the city of Qom a city that is home to important Shia Muslim shrines and the religious leadership that forms the backbone of the Islamic Republic[i]. Then, on December 13th another attack was reported in the same schools, poisoning 51 schoolgirls and most of the girls were hospitalized. However, authorities dismissed the girl’s symptoms as stress, excitement, and mental contagion. But when asked, they answered that they sensed a unusual gas smell in school leading to shortness of breath, numbness, pain in the legs, and difficulty in walking. This led to an increase in the gravity of the matter. The attacks are being clearly directed at girls which is damaging to their human right to education and health safety.
In addition to the problem, there is a lack of transparency about the tests that were made on the girls which don’t allow more investigation and clarity over the causes of poisoning. When asked about the results, authorities refused to release the toxicology results citing respiratory viral disease and kidney disease as causes of death. [ii]
One of the girls was an 11-year-old girl that died citing respiratory viral disease and kidney disease as causes of death. There has been a lot of controversy about this due to the pattern that the Iranian authorities are covering the issue and pressuring families to release certain press information. Amnesty International received information from a medical doctor inside Iran that the Ministry of Health has issued a protocol to medical centers in the country ordering medical staff to attribute symptoms suffered by schoolgirls from the chemical gas attacks to “stress”[iii]. In this case, the authorities have already arrested an Iranian journalist that reported poisonings.
Another factor is that in the past months, the clerical establishment has been challenged by mass protests that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini a Kurdish woman who was detained for not wearing her headscarf, this created social anger especially in schoolgirls when it started circulating in social media videos of girls taking off their headscarves and singing anti-establishment slogans. “It became evident that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed down,” the deputy health minister said on Sunday.[iv]
The available information only indicates the possibility of criminal acts directed at girls’ schools in those regions. As the attacks are being directly targeted to them, by using chemicals that are publicly available.
The failure of the administration not only in stopping the causes of the poisonings but also in providing information to the families and citizens has led to increasing public criticism and protests mainly organized by teachers’ unions. Some of these protests were stopped through physical violence including pepper spray and tear gas by the security forces. Some of these attacks were done to mothers that protested outside the schools. There have also been arrests of professors after the attack of March 8th.
We can conclude that the authorities’ opinions and roles have been ambiguous, showing their incapacity to defend the rights of the girls and not being able to clearly divide the political and social situation that Iran is facing with the lives of hundreds of innocent girls.
[i] Afshang, M. (2023). Iran investigates poisoning of hundreds of schoolgirls with toxic gas. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-64797957
[ii] Amnesty International (2023). Iran: Millions of schoolgirls at risk of poisoning. Retrieved from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde13/6696/2023/en/
[iii] Amnesty International (2023). Iran: Millions of schoolgirls at risk of poisoning. Retrieved from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde13/6696/2023/en/
[iv] Afshang, M. (2023). Iran investigates poisoning of hundreds of schoolgirls with toxic gas. BBC News Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-64797957