A bang resonates, like a teargas canister exploding. A foul odor of rotten eggs or spoiled fruit envelops the classroom. Schoolgirls complain of headaches, heart palpitations and difficulty breathing.
In the earlier days of the rash of suspected poisoning of Iranian girls that began in November, ambulances and EMTs were summoned to treat the sickened children.
Now, as the crisis has spread to dozens of cities and afflicted thousands of girls, teachers send their students home to get their parents to take them to a hospital, fearful of angering regime hardliners who dismiss the crisis as one of “sociogenic origin” brought on by teenage hysteria.
The prevailing theory among human rights activists about what is motivating the poisonings is the Islamic regime’s intentional punishment of predominantly young and female protesters of endemic misogyny that have shaken Iran for six months.
An unprecedented challenge to the aging theocracy was ignited by the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody of the morality police for failing to fully cover her hair with the mandatory headscarf.
Estimates of the number of students made ill by a still-undermined substance range from 1,000 acknowledged by officials to 7,168 reported Wednesday by Iran’s unofficial Human Rights Activists News Agency, HRANA. The agency reported it had documented that sum of victims from examination of only 103 of the 297 schools and educational institutions reporting mass poisoning incidents, suggesting the toll is likely much higher.
“Over the past few months, there have been disturbing reports of serial poison attacks on schools with toxic gas across Iran, mainly targeting girls’ schools,” HRANA wrote in its report on International Women’s Day, a global holiday that prompted criticism by human rights organizations especially directed at Iran and Afghanistan.
“The gender composition of affected educational institutions is also alarming,” HRANA said, noting there were 224 girls’ schools, 18 boys’ schools, and 4 mixed schools out of the 246 cases in which the gender of the students was determined.
Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported a day earlier similarly shocking figures based on research by its human rights researcher reporting on the poisoning scandal.
By all media accounts, none of the girls who have fallen ill over the past three months are known to have died from whatever made them sick. Symptoms of lethargy, disorientation, nausea and dizziness usually fade within a day or two, both Iranian and foreign media report.
The government’s dismissive reactions to the schoolroom epidemic has added fresh fury to the widespread outbreak of discontent with the Islamic regime following Amini’s death. As the toll of sickened girls has steadily risen in recent days, rekindled anger at an aging and out-of-touch leadership has reinvigorated the protests that had waned after at least four public executions of anti-regime protesters late last year.
Under the theocratic leadership’s kill-the-messenger crisis management strategy, Tehran authorities this week arrested journalists reporting on the mysterious illnesses. The Intelligence Ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps deployed security agents to hospitals to threaten medical personnel and parents of sick girls if they speak out about the poisonings.
On March 1, the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association called on Iran’s senior leadership to clearly condemn the reported attacks on students. The Shargh Daily newspaper reported in late February that a toxic gas was used to poison dozens of students at three Tehran girls’ schools.
“Videos circulated on social media appear to show students from one affected school chanting slogans in protest and plainclothes officers violently attacking a mother who had come to the school,” the reformist newspaper reported. Shargh Daily’s reporter was among three journalists called in for questioning by a regime prosecutor. A reporter for Event 24, another unofficial news outlet, was also interrogated after interviewing psychiatrists who disputed official claims the ill girls were enduring some sort of psychological distress.
Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi on the same day accused media of “fearmongering.” Two days later Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi blamed the intensifying scandal on unspecified “enemies” and a media campaign to instill stress and anxiety among students and parents aimed at reinvigorating the infuriated protests of last autumn.
The Tehran leadership’s obvious concern is that deliberate physical harm to young women is likely to intensify the unprecedented unrest that has abated after brutal crackdowns by authorities.
Human Rights Watch called on Iranian’s leaders to launch a “prompt, transparent and impartial investigation into the reported poisonings of girls at schools, bring perpetrators to justice, and ensure the safety off all students. Unfortunately, their long history of disregard for the basic rights of Iranian citizens, especially women and girls, leaves little reason to be hopeful genuine investigations and appropriate action will be carried out.”
Iranian officials have offered contradictory accounts of the poisonings, which began in the holy city of Qom and spread to areas where more fundamentalist views prevail on women’s place in Islamic society.
Iran’s deputy health minister, Younes Panahi, was quoted on Feb. 26 ascribing the poisonings to evidence that “some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed down.”
On Tuesday, Iranian state-controlled media announced the first arrests in the poisoning scandal but gave no indication of the motive or identity of those detained.
“Based on the intelligence and research measures of the intelligence agencies, a number of people have been arrested in five provinces and the relevant agencies are conducting a full investigation,” Deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi told state television.
Education minister Yousef Nouri opined to state-run media that 95% of the girls reporting illness had no diagnosable medical problem. He urged parents of girls claiming to be sick to heed reliable official media.
Sameh Najafabadi, a member of the parliamentary health commission, told news agencies that “what is evident is that these attacks…are deliberate.”
Iran’s Health Ministry reported findings from a scientific committee investigation of the suspected poisonings, attributing the sicknesses to “an irritant substance that is mainly inhaled.” It offered no explanation of what substance was involved or how girls in classrooms may have come in contact with it.
What, exactly, is making the students sick is unclear. A former commander of NATO’s chemical, biological and nuclear defense forces, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told NBC News that the No. 1 challenge in verifying the poisonings is “actually getting samples from an attack.” He speculated it could be sulphur dioxide, a toxic industrial chemical, or nitrogen dioxide. Other chemical experts point to agricultural substances used widely in Iran’s rural areas.
Iranian officials have also suggested parents of the ill students who have been active in the protests may have used their children to bring poison into their schools, an allegation of parental perfidy that has further enraged Iran’s disproportionately young population. Nearly 40% of Iran’s 86 million people are under the age of 25. The population under the age of 54 is more than 86%, the vast majority with no experience of life except under the rule of fundamentalist ayatollahs.
In contrast with Afghanistan, where Taliban extremists have banned girls and women from educational institutions, Iranian authorities have mostly supported girls’ education since the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Persian monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Monday denounced the poisonings as “unforgivable crime” and called for its perpetrators to be punished by death. It was unclear, however, whether his harsh words would stop the extremist forces behind the attacks on schoolgirls. Hundreds more instances of girls sickened at their schools were reported the next day.
The White House and the U.S. State Department have called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to add a probe of the schoolgirl poisonings to an existing investigation into human rights abuses tied to the horrific brutality against protesters after Amini’s beating and death. HRANA reported in late February that the 530 people were killed and 19,000 arrested in the eruption of anti-regime protests.
Tehran casts Western criticism of the poisonings as hostility toward the Islamic regime and blames its foreign critics for encouraging the unrest that has shaken the clerical regime more profoundly than at any time since the 1979 Revolution.