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Iranian schoolgirl poisonings cause fear, anger, confusion
If pro-government extremists are terrorizing schoolgirls with poison or rumors about poison, it marks a disturbing step backwards for Iranian society.
Iranians are reeling from one of the most disturbing stories of a very disturbing year: the apparent mass poisoning of schoolgirls. Hundreds of students from across the country have been treated for apparent respiratory distress over the past few months, with the number cases rapidly accelerating.
Authorities, opposition figures, and parents have all blamed the illnesses on chemical attacks. Beyond that, the story gets murky and contested, and the mass panic may be doing damage alongside any chemical agents.
Some Iranian officials have said that the poisonings were the work of extremist forces “who wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed.” Other officials have claimed it was a false-flag conspiracy by the opposition. Opposition figures have speculated that the government is either encouraging or allowing revenge attacks on schoolgirls, since schools were a hotbed of the 2022 women’s uprising.
Indeed, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda instructed his followers to take morality policing into their own hands in a sermon last Friday. He is the official preacher for the city of Mashhad, meaning that his words are a green light for pro-government vigilantism.
Doctors have also been told not to publicize details about the patients, the Reformist paper Shargh Daily reported.
Making matters more confusing, reports of chemical attacks have been inconsistent and included medically impossible details. Some incidents could be mass panic caused by rumors of poison gas, chemical warfare experts told the BBC. There has been a huge increase in reports after the poisonings became a major news item, and many of the victims got better quickly.
The milder symptoms of nerve gas are similar to panic attacks and the flu, a problem that vexes even trained medical professionals during chemical attacks. When cultists released sarin on the Tokyo subway in 1995, thousands of people showed up at the hospital with potential poisoning symptoms, but only about quarter of them turned out to have chemical injuries, according to some estimates.
Poison gas is especially poignant in Iranian memory. Iraq used chemical weapons during its invasion of Iran in the 1980s, and many victims continue to suffer the effects. (One doctor who has been treating schoolgirls in Tehran is a veteran of the war.) A few months ago, the use of smoke grenades in Javanrud sparked rumors that the Iranian military was gassing Kurds with much scarier chemical weapons.
Whoever the culprit, and whatever percentage of the illnesses are caused by poison, authorities’ response has been dismal: taking months to respond, making scientifically-confused statements, tossing around false-flag conspiracy theories, and sending cops to confront worried parents rather than guard school buildings.
Some media reported that an eleven year old girl named Fatemeh Rezaie died from poisoning, but her father told local TV that her death was from an unrelated illness. Given the government’s record of forcing people to make false statements on TV, his denial has sparked rumors that authorities are trying to cover up the case.
The last few months have been incredibly traumatizing for anyone in Iran, especially girls and women, and especially teenagers. Authorities have reportedly disappeared dissidents to secret black sites and used sexual torture as a weapon. One report stated that officials showed sexually graphic videos at schools, warning students that Iran faces the same future if the government falls.
If pro-government forces are poisoning schoolgirls — or spreading terror in girls’ schools through rumors about poison — then it represents a disturbing leap backwards for Iranian society.
The Islamic Republic has taken pride in the fact that more Iranian women graduate university than men, even if it has tried to manipulate or restrict the content of higher education on gender lines. Trying to drive girls out of school entirely would mark another step in what Reformists call the “Talibanization” of Iran.
On the other hand, if officials’ speculation about a false-flag attack is true, then the opposition pulling off a scheme so large and so sophisticated calls into question the Islamic Republic’s basic ability to protect its citizens.
Most poison gases dissipate quickly, making alleged chemical attacks difficult to investigate. A single chlorine gas shell in Syria caused years of international debate. The Intercept documented how hard it was to establish basic facts about that case, even when a reporter had physical access to the scene of the attack.
Now spread that out over dozens of locations in a three-month period. Whatever truth comes out — if one ever does — it will mark another sad milestone for the Iranian people. Iran’s girls deserve much better. The Shargh Daily’s cartoon says more than words can:
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