There has been a spate of schoolgirls falling sick in Iran. The BBC reports that over 1,000 schoolgirls have become unwell over the past three months and further detail is starting to file in that they may have been poisoned with toxic gas.
Early descriptions suggest that the sickness has been seen in 26 different schools, beginning with a school located south of Tehran in November 2022, where about 50 students fell ill, according to Al Jazeera.
The young girls were sent to hospital and some were forced to stay under observation for a number of days.
The symptoms were all eerily similar, including headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue and respiratory complications. Some have reportedly also temporarily lost movement in their limbs. It doesn’t appear to be just the children either, with teachers also impacted with the mysterious illness.
Over the last three months, the same scenario has been replicated at other schools across the region. As it has become more widespread, suspicion has started to creep in about what is causing it.
Why Are Iranian Schoolgirls Falling Ill?
The cause is currently under investigation by Iranian authorities, but the students have allegedly said they smelt a strange scent in their classrooms, similar to the smell of a rotten piece of fruit.
At first, authorities thought maybe there was an element of hysteria involved. Al Jazeera reports, “For months, authorities in schools, governors offices and the health ministry had either denied or downplayed the incidents, saying the schoolgirls had ‘panicked’ or experienced only ‘minor’ symptoms.”
However, as more similar reports rolled in across the region, authorities have been forced to start investigating.
Earlier this week, the deputy health minister, Younes Panahi confirmed that there are concerns the sickness is “deliberate”.
Panahi suggested that “some people” may want to prevent young girls from going to school.
Speaking to the BBC, chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta said that the only way to get to the bottom of what is causing the illness, if it is a poisoning, would be to detect the ‘causative substance’, which often requires someone to be in the school, testing for it, at the time it happens.
There is also some confusion around the illness, because the young girls are seeming to recover very quickly, which is often not the case when someone is poisoned.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has broken his silence on the issue, and handed down a somber warning if the illness is the result of foul play.
“If the poisoning of students is proven, those behind this crime should be sentenced to capital punishment and there will be no amnesty for them,” Khamenei said, according to the state’s news agency, IRNA.
According to The Guardian the Iranian government has begun to arrest people in relation to the issue.
“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,” the deputy interior minister, Majid Mirahmadi, said on the state television channel.
There has been no further details around who these people are, what they may be affiliated with or even what they are suspected of.
Protests have begun to erupt outside the Ministry of Education as well, with teachers and parents campaigning for better safety in school environments.
The suspected poisoning of the school girls comes after Mahsa Amini died on 16 September 2022 in police custody in Tehran, under suspicious circumstances. Amini had been arrested for not wearing the hijab in accordance with Iranian standards, and her death sent shockwaves around the world.
Many young women and girls turned out to protest, removing their hijabs and cutting their hair in protest of the harsh laws. The Guardian reports that “the security services may have turned a blind eye to religious extremists allegedly punishing girls for taking part.”
As the investigations are only in their early stages, it is not clear yet if authorities will be able to identify proof that there has been poisonings, or even find a culprit.