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Hundreds of Young Girls Are Being Poisoned in Iran Following Months of Protests

Protests in Iran, which started with the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after being detained on the grounds that she did not comply with the headscarf rules, continue, with a sign held aloft reading Islamic Repulic of Iran 1%

Protests continue to rock Iran after the death of Masha Amini, a young woman who died in police custody after she was arrested for refusing to wear a hijab. Leading figures around the world are urging people to show support, including Nazanin Boniadi of the Rings Of Power and the writers of the book Iranian Love Stories. The government backlash against the protests has been swift and brutal, resulting in the detainment and murders of numerous people. Now, an unthinkable casualty has occurred: the suspected poisoning of Iranian school girls.

Hundreds of young Iranian girls have been hospitalized with cardiac and respiratory symptoms in ten separate Iranian cities, and Iranian officials fear the worst. The tragedy began in the holy city of Qom three months ago, where over 50 girls fell ill and were taken to a hospital. Many of them were released within a few hours, but some had to be monitored for a few days. Similar occurrences began happening in the cities of Tehran, Borujerd, and Ardebi. Schoolgirls were always the victim, leading officials to believe that the symptoms were due to a deliberate attack.

The students reported having smelled rotten tangerines, strong perfume, and chlorides before they fell sick. Some even claimed that they saw strange objects thrown onto school grounds before the symptoms occurred. The symptoms of the girls are varied; most experienced headaches and nausea but there have been reports that some students suffered temporary paralysis of their limbs. So far, none of the school girls have died due to the symptoms.

According to Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, the motive for the poisonings remains unclear. While the government has not yet made any arrests, an emergency meeting took place with officials from the health and education ministries.

“The topic of the poisoning of our dear ones was discussed,” said Vahidi, but he declined to say whether or not any evidence of poisoning was found. He went on to blame “anxiety” and “stress” as the culprits behind the mysterious symptoms and blamed foreign news outlets and Iran’s political enemies for causing a public stir. School officials have similarly downplayed the incidents, saying that the girls “panicked” and that their symptoms were “minor.” Some said that food poisoning could have been the cause, citing a recent outbreak of food poisoning at universities, but none of the poisoned girls became sick from food. Despite government efforts to mitigate the claims, the number of affected students has reportedly risen to over 800.

Other Iranian experts are not convinced that these incidents were unrelated. Alireza Monadi, a lawmaker and the head of Parliament’s education committee, said that the girls were the victims of deliberate attacks and that over 30 toxicologists in the Health Ministry named nitrogen gas as the poison after an analysis. Deputy health minister Younes Panahi shares Monadi’s belief, saying that “some people” wish to deter girls from going to school. He did not elaborate further on which people he meant.

The suspected poisonings are especially disconcerting to Iranians, as they serve as reminders of earlier Taliban attempts to poison school girls in the 2000s and the 2010s in order to stop them from receiving an education. Some believe that the Iranian government itself is responsible, accusing the state of attempting to enact “revenge” on young girls who have spread images of the protests. Despite extremist resistance, women’s education has not been contested by the general public in over 40 years. The majority of Iran’s university students are women, and women make up nearly half of the nation’s labor force.

Rally held in Beyazit in support of Iranian protests, as women raise two fingers to the sky
(Omer Kuscu/ dia images via Getty Images)

Women in Iran also serve as the backbone of the protest movement. Thousands of women and girls are removing their hijabs and chanting “death to the dictator” while tearing up pictures of government officials. While people of all ages are currently protesting, children and teenagers have suffered the brunt of the government’s targeted attack. Law enforcement agencies have raided high schools across the country and have resorted to interrogating and beating students in retaliation for youth participation in the protests. A teenage girl reportedly died in one such attack in the city of Ardabil.

In response to recent events, some parents have chosen to remove their children from school entirely, while others argue this only serves to vindicate the attackers. Angry and terrified parents have also taken to gathering outside of hospitals where their daughters are currently being treated for the poisoning symptoms to demand answers. The government response to such has been equally draconian, and a recent video posted to Instagram shows plain-clothes Iranian security forces beating a screaming mother.

Most of the news coming out of Iran can be attributed to independent journalists, as the government has attempted to downplay the protests. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently granted pardons and reduced sentences to “tens of thousands” of prisoners during the protests. However, it’s unlikely that many of those people were protestors. Iran tends to announce mass amnesty grants around religious holidays. In this case, the pardons were announced on February 11th, the anniversary of the Iranian Islamic Revolution responsible for bringing the current regime to power.

According to human rights attorney Gissou Nia, most of the pardoned are either old or sick. Some of them may be debtors, as debt is a criminal offense in the country. Meanwhile, most of the protestors have been charged with espionage, aiding foreign intelligence services, or attacking government or public property. Nia says the reasons for Khamenei’s announcement are twofold. The first is international, the Iranian government is attempting to cover up the brutal state response to the protests by releasing prisoners in order to protect its reputation on the world stage. They especially want to maintain their trade relationships with Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. The other reason is internal: The government wants the Iranian people to believe that it has responded mercifully to protestors in order to hide the human rights abuses it is currently perpetrating.

In response to the poisonings, the US State Department has called upon Iran to investigate the issue further.

(featured image: Hakan Akgun / dia images via Getty Images

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