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What’s happening to Iran’s schoolgirls?

What’s happening to Iran’s schoolgirls?


Since November, more than 1,000 Iranian schoolgirls have fallen ill after a wave of suspected poisonings. What’s really going on?

“To Iran, where authorities are investigating what the Iranian government is calling potentially deliberate poisoning of hundreds of schoolgirls…”

NBC News

Since November, more than 1,000 Iranian schoolgirls have fallen ill after a wave of suspected poisonings, possibly caused by toxic gas. 

Videos have emerged on social media showing teenage students lying in school courtyards before being taken to hospital by ambulance.

“According to senior officials, the girls from schools across the country have been suffering respiratory, cardiac and neurological symptoms.”

NBC News

The first cases emerged in the city of Qom, when 18 schoolgirls fell ill and were taken to hospital.

It’s hard to know the actual case numbers because of limited press freedom in Iran. 

The poisonings have left parents taking their daughters out of school, while teachers and families have held protests outside the Ministry of Education in Tehran.

Some people believe the schoolgirls have been targeted by religious groups keen to stop them from going to school. Others question whether there have been any chemical attacks at all. 

So, what’s really going on?


“There’s widespread suspicion the girls are being targeted for joining the protests for women’s rights which have swept Iran.”

BBC News

Last September, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody triggered widespread protests in Iran. She’d been arrested by the religious morality police for breaching the country’s strict dress code. 

Women, particularly schoolgirls and university students, have been leading those protests… which is why many fear they’re now being punished. 

Here’s human rights researcher and writer Azadeh Pourzand speaking to CBC News.

“The regime wants to deprive Iranians and particularly women even of the little feeling of safety they may have had socially as a way of collective punishment.”

Azadeh Pourzand, CBC News

For months, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remained silent on the issue… but last week, he was forced to speak out after a sharp rise in the number of cases…

[Clip of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking]

He called the wave of suspected poisonings unforgivable, and blamed foreign influences.  

And he’s now tasked Iran’s interior minister to investigate the cause. A criminal investigation by the prosecutor general is also underway. 

That’s because the exact cause of the poisonings isn’t clear.


Some witnesses have reported seeing suspicious objects being thrown into schoolyards, and in many of the cases, schoolgirls have reported that they’ve smelt gas.

“Tear gas, particularly badly made tear gas, would create these sort of symptoms without killing people, and possibly other chemicals like sulphur dioxide and some people also suggested nitrogen dioxide.”

Hamish de Bretton Gordon, CBS News

Poisonous substances can degrade quickly, making it difficult to run tests. 

Negin Shiraghaei is a political activist working with a group of open source investigators and intelligence gathering groups to try and find out what’s going on.  

This is her speaking at a Tortoise event last week…

“We’re gathering samples inside of Iran, but that’s not enough because it’s a gas, it’s a solid form that turns to gas so it’s really difficult to test it unless there are independent investigators inside Iran who can react instantly and get proper samples.”

Negin Shiraghaei speaking at a Tortoise event

But some experts believe it’s a “mass sociogenic illness” rather than a gas that’s causing the schoolgirls to become unwell. 

Anxiety rather than there being a clear biomedical cause can lead to people experiencing symptoms.

And it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. Between 2012 and 2016, schoolgirls in Afghanistan reported similar symptoms to those in Iran.

“Schoolgirls appeared sick with headaches, dizziness and fainting. At the time many believed that Taliban were responsible for mass poisoning, yet investigations by the World Health Organisation and NATO found no traces of poison and eventually the most probably cause was considered to be mass psychological illness.”

Channel 4 News

The United Nations also concluded the cases in Afghanistan were most likely a result of mass psychogenic illness, after finding no trace of chemical gas or poison.

Negin Shiraghaei disagrees though…

“What we documented… shows perfectly that are evidence backed, that there is a poisoning happening, it’s not a mass hysteria, and the pattern of the events that are happening are all indicating to something real.”

Negin Shiraghaei speaking at a Tortoise event

Many Iranians – especially those who oppose the government – are sceptical about what the official investigation will find. But there is hope that, now the suspected poisonings have garnered international attention, they might at least stop.

Today’s story was written and mixed by Imy Harper.