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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Hundreds of schoolgirls in Iran fall sick. Officials suspect poisoning.

Iranian girls attending class at a private high school north of Tehran in 2020.

By Farnaz Fassihi

Hundreds of schoolgirls in Iran have been hospitalized in over 10 cities after falling sick with respiratory, cardiac and neurological symptoms, and senior officials said they might have been deliberately poisoned.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said at a news conference on Wednesday that the motive behind what some officials called school attacks remained unclear and that no arrests had been made. But the government held an emergency meeting Wednesday with officials from the health and education ministries, he said, and teams from the Intelligence Ministry and security forces began an investigation.

“The topic of the poisoning of our dear ones was discussed,” Vahidi said, according to a video of his comments carried by state news media. He attributed some of the girls’ symptoms to stress and anxiety and blamed Iran’s enemies and foreign news outlets for causing public alarm.

The first reports of girls’ falling sick emerged three months ago in the religious city of Qom, which is about 80 miles southwest of the capital, Tehran. Students reported smelling mysterious odors like tangerine and chlorides and were hospitalized after having difficulty breathing and experiencing heart palpitations, nausea and numbness in their limbs.

By Wednesday, the number of students affected had risen to more than 800.

Alireza Monadi, a lawmaker and the head of Parliament’s education committee, said on Tuesday that the schools had been deliberately attacked and that 30 toxicologists in the Health Ministry had identified the toxins found in schools as nitrogen gas.

Monadi and the deputy health minister, Younes Panahi, said the motive appeared to be to prevent girls from attending schools, raising alarm about the possible infiltration of Islamic extremist groups.

“Poisoning female students intentionally is very bad news,” Monadi said, according to official news reports in Iran. “The fact that a group of people wanted to prohibit young girls from attending school is alarming. We have to find the roots of it.”

The suspected poisonings have rattled Iranians because girls’ education under the Islamic Republic has not been contested or challenged for the past four decades. Women make up a majority of Iran’s university students and nearly half of the workforce, and they have a robust presence in civil society, where they work for greater rights despite arrests and intimidations.

Women and girls have also led the recent protests demanding an end to the Islamic Republic, removing their mandatory hijabs, tearing pictures of officials and chanting, “Death to the dictator.”

In response, the government has systematically targeted children and teenagers. Security agents have raided dozens of high schools and interrogated, beaten and injured students to punish them for participating in the protests. In at least one case, a teenage girl was killed during a school raid in the city of Ardabil.

Rights activists said the cause of the students’ sudden illnesses could include punishment for civil disobedience, the prevention of education or sowing fear.

“These appear to be serious coordinated attacks to create fear among the girls and their families in the context of girls’ partaking in the protests and being penalized for it,” said Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It is adding to the collective trauma and anxiety in Iran.”

The reports of hundreds of students falling sick across Iran have surged in the past few days, according to local news reports, officials and rights activists. The union representing teachers in Iran said Wednesday that 26 schools had been targeted, including at least one elementary school, with students showing symptoms of toxic poisoning.

Videos circulating widely online and published by Iranian news media show ambulances rushing to schools, along with girls collapsing to the ground, gasping for air and lying on beds in hospital emergency rooms.

Groups of angry and anxious parents have gathered outside schools, demanding answers. In one case, videos showed security forces in plain clothes beating and attacking a screaming mother outside a school in Tehran.

In another video, a woman is seen standing outside a school in Kermanshah. She says that, first, there was the sound of an explosion, and that then the principal announced that students were feeling sick, which was followed by ambulance sirens. In the footage, two female students say their classmates fainted, and they express anxiety about the possibility that their friends will die.

Many ordinary Iranians blamed the conservative government and its security forces for the sick cases at the schools and criticized them for not taking any action sooner.

After months during which the government dismissed the cases, the rise in the number of sick schoolgirls could no longer be ignored. President Ibrahim Raisi on Wednesday appointed the Interior Ministry to oversee the investigations.

Then, on Wednesday, cases emerged in 17 more schools, and 200 schoolgirls fell ill in Ardabil, according to state media reports.

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