Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has ordered an investigation into a wave of reported illnesses at girls’ schools across the country amid allegations by some that these are attacks in retaliation for students and women leading anti-government protests sparked by the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting on March 1, Raisi assigned Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli to head the probe after hundreds of girls have reported falling ill at school since November.
RFE/RL’s Radio Farda reported that at least 26 schools were affected by the crisis on March 1.
The first incident is believed to have occurred in November, when 18 schoolgirls in the city of Qom were taken to a hospital after complaining of symptoms that included nausea, headaches, coughing, breathing difficulties, heart palpitations, and numbness and pain in their hands or legs.
It is unclear what may be causing the illnesses, though some of those affected have said they smelled chlorine or cleaning agents, while others said they thought they smelled tangerines in the air.
“Referring to the concerns created in connection with the poisoning of a number of students in some schools, [the president] gave the Minister of the Interior a mission to follow up and find the root of the issue as quickly as possible, and to provide documented and continuous information about the results of the follow-ups,” the president’s office said in a statement following the cabinet meeting.
Officials have only recently admitted there may be a problem, with parliament member Abdulali Rahimi Mozafari on February 28 calling on the speaker to order an investigation into the matter.
That reticence has prompted some to accuse the government of purposely “poisoning” students, who have been at the forefront of recent anti-government protests — the biggest threat to the Islamic leadership since the 1979 revolution.
Iran has been roiled by unrest since the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a hijab, or head scarf, improperly.
The executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on February 28 accused the government of “an act of terrorism” through its failure to take the wave of illnesses seriously for months, raising “serious questions regarding government complicity with groups that have the organizational capacity to carry out such major attacks.”
The CHRI did not present any evidence to back up its claim that students had been poisoned, and it is unclear what is at the root of the crisis.
At least one death has been linked to the outbreak of illnesses, the CHRI said, but the girl’s father refused to confirm there was a connection between her death and the alleged poisonings.
In the latest incident, two Iranian journalists reported on social media on February 28 that several schoolgirls in Tehran and in Pardis, just east of the Iranian capital, fell ill, with the cause unknown.
Some rights activists have accused Iranian authorities of trying to suppress information about the death of the girl, while others have accused the authorities of not doing enough to find the cause of the outbreak of illness and prevent new cases.
Some angry parents have refused to send their children to school.
A teacher from Qom — which is about 135 kilometers south of the capital Tehran — told Radio Farda that out of 250 students, about 200 missed classes, presumably from concerns over the illnesses.
Meanwhile, others have speculated that religious extremists, in a bid to create fear and prevent girls from attending school, could be behind the incidents.
Earlier this week, top Iranian Sunni cleric Molavi Abdulhamid, who is regarded as a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, said schoolgirls were being poisoned as “revenge” for the role young women have played in recent protests against the government.
Last week, Nafiseh Moradi, a researcher of Islamic studies at Al Zahra University, an all-female public university in Tehran, said in a commentary that it was suspicious that girls, not boys, were mainly affected by the illnesses. The article on Qom News was later deleted from its website.
The government has held several counterrallies to try and quell the dissent, but people continue to take to the streets across the country, as universities and schools have become leading venues for clashes between protesters and the authorities.
Security forces have also launched a series of raids on schools across the country, violently arresting students, especially female students, who have defiantly taken off their hijabs in protest.