More than 1,000 schoolgirls in 15 cities have reported symptoms consistent with those experienced by victims of toxic gas attacks. Girls interviewed by the state media say that they were suddenly overcome by a smell "of rotten fruit or rotten eggs or a strong perfume," and could barely breathe. Some say they passed out and had to be dragged into the fresh air by their friends. Others say they felt dizzy and sick. Many girls were taken to hospital.
At a recent press conference, Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who had been asked by President Ebrahim Raisi to investigate, claimed that "more than 90% of the poisonings were not caused by external factors, and most came from stress and worries caused by the news." However, Iranian Deputy Health Minister Yunes Panahi suggested that the aim of the attacks was to close girls' schools. Parliament has taken up the issue, and an official investigation has now been opened.
"Parents are protesting in front of the schools," a 47-year-old mother from Iran's capital, Tehran, told DW. "Many are considering not sending their children to school anymore. My adult daughter is a student. She says that these toxic gas attacks started in the dormitories during the nationwide protests. There have been reports for months, but no one has taken them seriously."
Stress claims 'ridiculous'
The Iranian Teachers' Trade Association has called for a nationwide protest. "Whoever is behind these attacks should know that the safety of students is our red line," Mohammad Habibi, a member of the union's board of directors who has been arrested several times after calling for strikes, posted on social media. On Saturday, parents in Tehran took to the streets in protest.
Few Iranians seem to believe that the symptoms are caused by "stress" as claimed by Vahidi, a former Revolutionary Guard general and defense minister who is wanted by Interpol on suspicion of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 85 people.
"What Vahidi claims is ridiculous," the journalist Moloud Hajizadeh told DW. "The regime has installed a dense network of surveillance cameras over the past 10 to 15 years. The authorities even know when someone travels in a car without a headscarf. The car owner immediately receives an SMS and a warning. The security forces even say that they know exactly who is involved in which protest and when. Protesters are often arrested at home a few days later. And now they pretend they do not know how over 1,000 schoolgirls were poisoned.
Response to protests
Hajizadeh has been arrested several times for her reporting on protest movements in Iran. In 2021, she was sentenced to a year in prison. She was able to escape the country just before her sentence was to begin and now lives in Norway.
"I have been watching these attacks since November and reporting about them online," she said. "They remind me of the acid attacks that took place in the city of Isfahan in 2014, when dozens of women were targeted for not wearing their hijab properly. These were organized attacks by young men who were never arrested, just like these are organized attacks now."
The first report of a poisoning attack occurred in Qom, a very conservative city considered sacred to Shiites. When the first reports surfaced, there were nationwide protests taking place all over the country, sparked by the death in police custody of the 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini. Iranian leaders have accused journalists and "foreign powers" of fomenting the protests, in which people chant: "Woman, Life, Freedom."
Various extremist groups in Iran have called for girls to be banned from attending school.
This article was originally written in German.