Little hope of justice in Iran, as poisonings at schools deprive Iranian girls of education

Little hope of justice in Iran, as poisonings at schools deprive Iranian girls of education
As hundreds of thousands of Iranian schoolgirls avoid going to school due to the 'mysterious' nationwide poisonings, parents and teachers have little to no hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice by authorities.
5 min read
13 March, 2023
Iranian schoolgirls perform in an opening ceremony of the First International Nowruz (New Day) Games for Women, at a basketball hall in Azadi (freedom) sport complex in western Tehran, 10 March 2023. [Getty]

For over three months, the number of girls' schools targeted by respiratory gas poisoning rising across all of Iran, but suddenly the attacks on schools came to a complete halt when, on 6 March, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged security officials to find those behind the attacks.

In that speech, Khamenei called the poisonings "a big and unforgivable crime" and urged the judicial system to issue the severest punishment to the perpetrators. Following his speech, all officials who had remained silent throughout the three months began upping each other to condemn the attacks.

Meanwhile, the security forces, who did not seriously investigate the cases before Khamenei's remarks, announced arrests less than 48 hours after his speech.

Two days later, on 10 March, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) affiliated media and the state-run TV broadcast a report containing an unidentified girl's confession, saying that a father and his daughter were behind the attacks on seven high schools in the southern city of Lar.

The report added that the main aim of the attacks was to send the footage to opposition Farsi media outside the country. A narrative that many Iranians find difficult to believe. 

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"I don't know if I must cry or laugh when I watch this show being played for us," told The New Arab, an Iranian stock market analyst from the capital, Tehran. 

"It is funny to see how unwise those who thought of this scenario are, but at the same time, it is deeply saddening because our children and we are the ones affected by their stupid set-up," he added.

Due to fear of respiratory attacks in girls' schools, his 10-year-old daughter has not participated in classes since the beginning of March.

The attacks on girls' schools began on 30 November in the holy city of Qom. For the first two months, officials denied the attacks, and on 15 February, the education minister Yusef Noori called it "a rumour".

Despite the officials' denial, the cases of poisonings rapidly spread to all major cities, the government admitted on 06 March that the attacks targeted 230 schools in 25 provinces, and over 5,000 students were hospitalised.

Like the father who talked to TNA from Tehran, many other parents decided to keep their daughters at home for their safety because of the absence of efficient protective measures and assurances by the police and security forces.

"The school managers told us there won't be any problem if our children don't participate in classes. Then, however, they rejected our request to hold the classes online," he explained.

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"I don't know if the government was behind the attacks or hardline Islamists, but whoever was behind it successfully managed to keep our girls out of schools. At least for a short time, their plot has worked," he added.

A 14-year-old student from an art high school in Tehran also told TNA that students were allowed to skip classes since the first attacks occurred in Tehran in early March.  

According to this student, days before being allowed to remain home, their parents patrolled outside their schools to make sure no one would put the life of their children in danger.

The officials have downplayed the influence of gas on students' health; however, reports indicated that girls in Qom and Brujerd for weeks suffered from severe breathing problems, numbness in feet and difficulty moving. 

"The severe health issues that the attacks caused made me think that the poisoning was the government's revenge for the active role school girls played in last year's protests," the art high school student said. 

During the anti-establishment demonstrations that rocked Iran following the death in custody of a young girl, Mahsa Amini, several videos of school girls went viral showing them burning the images of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini and the supreme leader Khamenei.

In October, tens of small-scale protests were held by teenage girls every day after the end of their school, in which they chanted against the establishment.

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Iranian Teachers' Trade Association (ITTA), a non-governmental organisation whose several members have been arrested in past years, highlighted this view as the main reason behind the attacks on girls' schools.

"A robust theory for these attacks is that [the establishment] attempts to spread social fear among the girls and their families because of the achievements that the "woman, life, freedom" movement has had," read the statement that ITTA released on 1 March.

The statement also referred to a similar incident in Isfahan, when in 2014, a series of acid attacks were carried out against women not wearing a chador. 

The authorities propose a chador as the appropriate Islamic outfit for women; however, women in Iran can cover their hair with a scarf. At least 15 women were targeted during the attacks, and the perpetrators were never arrested.

A high school teacher from Isfahan, working on a temporary contract at a private girls' high school, explained to TNA that extremists in conservative cities like Isfahan silently approved the recent gas attacks against the schools.

"You might think that everyone is sad and angry about these attacks, but the truth is different, and a group of extremists are happy with them," she told TNA.

"One is a religious teacher at our school who openly defended the attacks. During the Isfahan acid attacks and Kerman murders, extremists had a similar stance," she added, referring to a series of murders in the central city of Kerman in 2003.

In Kerman's serial killings, six members of the Basij paramilitary organisation killed at least five citizens to implement Sharia law on drug and alcohol dealers as well as sex workers. Independent journalists reported that the actual number of people killed by the group was 18.

In Kerman, the Basij members were freed after two years, a destiny that the teacher from Isfahan believes the perpetrator of gas attacks would face.

"I don't think the security forces will arrest those behind the school poisonings," she suggested. "Even if they arrest them, they would be released after a while, and the cases would be announced closed."