Hundreds of young Iranian girls have been poisoned in a series of mysterious gas attacks on schools across the Islamic republic, raising fears that militant religious groups are waging a dangerous campaign against female education.
The spate of attacks began in November in the holy city of Qom, home to the most senior clergy, but was kept from the public by the authorities, according to Iranian media. It has burst into the open this week as scores more schoolgirls have fallen victim to poisonings that have spread to other Iranian cities, including the capital Tehran.
Some of the schoolgirls affected have been hospitalised and it is unclear if any of them have died as a result of the poisoning. Accounts on social media reported they suffered breathing difficulties and vomiting, together with a burning sensation and paralysis in their legs.
The mother of one 15-year-old victim told the Financial Times that said she arrived at her daughter’s school to find doctors treating sick pupils in an ambulance while others lay in the street awaiting urgent medical attention.
The motivations of the perpetrators remain unclear, but Iran’s deputy health minister Younes Panahi said this week that the attackers wanted “to see all schools closed, in particular girls’ schools”. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice-president, likened the attacks to those carried out by Boko Haram, the violent Nigerian militant Islamist group that is opposed to female education.
The targeting of girls comes in the wake of four months of street protests that erupted in September, with demonstrators demanding the Islamic republic be replaced with a new secular government. The unrest was triggered by the death of a 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for allegedly not adhering to the proper Islamic dress code.
Women played a crucial role in the protests, under the rallying cry: “Woman, Life, Freedom”, with girls staging protests in their schools and removing their mandatory headscarves. Yashar Soltani, an investigative journalist, said the poisonings were an attempt to intimidate and punish girls who joined in the demonstrations.
Abdollah Momeni, a former student leader, said on Twitter: “What else does such behaviour mean but terrifying and intimidating innocent girls?” He added that the “students are paying for their presence in the movement of Woman, Life, Freedom”.
With the government coming under increasing pressure to investigate, interior minister Ahmad Vahidi urged people not be misled by speculation. He did not give any details of the number of schools or students affected, but MP Shahriyar Heydari claimed at least 900 girls had been poisoned in various cities.
Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi has urged the interior ministry to investigate the attacks and find “the roots” of the attacks. MP Alireza Monadi said the substances used included N2 gas, which he said quickly disappeared from the body and hence made a diagnosis difficult.
Zahra, the mother whose 15-year old daughter was poisoned, said she could smell what she thought was tear gas when she arrived at the school. “Families panicked and were shouting that there were no school leaders there to tell them what was happening,” said Zahra, who did not want to give her last name.
She said that some of the families whose daughters had been injured believed the perpetrators had links to the regime, asking: “If not, why aren’t they arrested?”
The Fars news agency, a hardline news outlet, said the poisonings were a conspiracy by the opposition based outside the country to provoke “the silent majority” who did not participate in the street protests but could join a new wave of demonstrations calling for a revolution.
Zahra said it was difficult for her to accuse any side. “On the one hand, I think there are groups in this political system who are very capable of this level of atrocity. And on the other, their opponents are ready to commit any crime to defame the regime.
“Whoever is behind it, our children are clearly the new victims of this dirty power struggle.”