On March 3, 2023, the media reported suspected poisonings affecting hundreds of girls in schools in several cities in Iran. The alleged poison attacks are said to have lasted at least three months and are ongoing. While the reports were initially ignored and dismissed by the Iranian authorities, the situation began to change as more and more schools were affected. The Iranian authorities now assume that the attacks were deliberate. About 30 schools are reported to have been affected. They are reportedly aiming to shut down schools for girls in the country.
Reports of alleged attacks on girls’ schools compound the deteriorating situation of women and girls in Iran. In recent months, many women and girls have experienced a downward spiral, particularly after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest by the so-called “morality police”. Mahsa Amini’s death has sparked protests across Iran. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities across Iran, including Tehran, Ilam, Kermanshah, Mahabad, Sanandaj, Sari and Tabriz. They call for accountability for Mahsa Amini’s death, an end to violence and discrimination against women and girls in Iran, and an end to their compulsory veiling. The peaceful protests were met with excessive use of force, resulting in several fatalities. Several women and girls have been killed during such protests. Among them are: Sarina Esmailzadeh, 16, who was allegedly beaten to death during a protest in Gohardasht, Alborz province on September 23, 2022; Nika Shakarami, 16, who was allegedly killed by Iranian security forces during a protest; and Hadis Najafi, 23, who was shot dead during a protest on the streets of Karaj. These are just a few names of those who have paid the highest price for defending women’s human rights in Iran.
The alleged poisonings are believed to have occurred across Iran since November 2022. Their incidence has reportedly escalated, with at least 26 schools affected in a single day in March 2023. In total, at least 58 schools in eight provinces have been affected since November 2023. More than 1,000 Iranian students have fallen ill in the past three months, with the most common symptoms being difficulty breathing, nausea, dizziness and fatigue.
The Iranian authorities have launched a special investigation and confirmed that the poisoning may constitute a criminal and premeditated act. While this response is to be welcomed, the Iranian authorities have not taken any action for months to address the attacks on women and girls in the country. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom commented on the alleged poisoning, stating that “extremist religious groups operating in the country support a ban on education for girls and women.”
The suspected poisonings require investigation and urgent action. Those responsible must be brought to justice. Equally, however, more needs to be done to address the ever-increasing attacks on women and girls in Iran and to ensure their rights are affirmed and adequately protected. The trends in violence against women and girls in Iran seen in recent months can no longer be tolerated.