Close to 1,000 Iranian schoolgirls poisoned in wave of attacks, human rights groups say

As more poisonings of schoolgirls are reported in Iran, human rights activists and journalists tell CBC News the regime in Tehran is to blame for what they say is just another form of gender-based attacks in the country.

Critics place blame on Iranian regime, as gender-based attacks continue

A man stands in front of an ambulance on a street in Ardabil, Iran.
In this photo taken from social media, a man stands in front of an ambulance parked near a school in Ardabil, Iran, on Wednesday after poisoning of students was reported. (@1500TASVIR/Twitter)

Editor's note: Following a review by the CBC Ombudsman, the headlines on this story have been edited to more accurately reflect the story.

As more poisonings of schoolgirls are reported in Iran, human rights activists and journalists tell CBC News the regime in Tehran is to blame for what they say is just another form of gender-based attacks in the country.

Close to 1,000 schoolgirls have reportedly been poisoned in Iran. Though regime officials initially dismissed the attacks, several have now admitted that they are intentional. But three months after the first reported attack, no arrests have been made in connection with the poisonings, which activists suggest are reprisals for the students' participation in nationwide protests that have been shaking the country.

The regime's health minister says students have experienced "mild symptoms." Media reports show the affected students have suffered difficulty breathing, severe coughing, nausea and muscle weakness. Many have been hospitalized.

It's still unclear what type of toxic gas is being used in the attacks and regime officials have given conflicting reports. The earliest known poisoning occurred in the religious city of Qom on Nov. 30, 2022. In early December, an independent activist group called Youth of Qom was among the first to cast blame on the regime for what it called an act of "biological terror."

Since then, the poison attacks have occurred in dozens of high schools in several cities across four different provinces. Videos on social media and reports by activists suggest 20 schools in three cities were targeted on Wednesday alone.

A video shared with prominent Iranian American women's rights activist Masih Alinejad and which she published on social media Wednesday, showed the mother of a girl who was poisoned being attacked in broad daylight by plainclothes security forces in Tehran.

Alinejad said the people who took the video told her the woman was attacked after demanding answers about what happened from the school's authorities. In the video, the woman was surrounded by a crowd of people as a man reached for her head and yanked her by the hair. 

Witnesses told Alinejad that the woman was forced into a car in front of the school in the west of Tehran and taken away.

Attacks revenge for protests, activists say

Alinejad told CBC News that she believes the Islamic Republic is taking revenge on the young girls who were at the forefront of anti-regime protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman.

Amini's family says she was beaten to death last September by the regime's police patrol unit that enforces its Islamic dress codes after she was arrested for wearing her hijab improperly.

At the peak of anti-regime protests, videos posted online showed schoolgirls chanting slogans, waving the mandated hijab in the air defiantly and ​​tearing pictures of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.

An arm holds up a photo of an Iranian woman in a protest against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi outside of the United Nations.
A protesters holds a photo of Mahsa Amini at a demonstration outside the UN on Sept. 21, 2022, in New York City. Protests were held around the world after the 22-year-old Iranian woman died following her arrest for allegedly violating the country's strict Islamic dress code. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Alinejad says many of the children who were poisoned told her they were scared to get into an ambulance or take medication offered to them because they were afraid they would be killed. 

"The students know very well that the attack on the schoolgirls is intentional and revenge by the Islamic Republic against the brave women who reject the forced hijab," Alinejad told CBC News.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International say the regime has targeted schools and killed dozens of children in the wake of the protests.

Atena Daeimi, a long-time human rights activist in Iran, says the regime has used schools to enforce and mandate its Islamist ideology for decades. 

"We also see that during this revolution, schools have become the focus of their repression," she said. "The regime's security forces even converted schoolyards into their own bases." 

WATCH | Poisonings designed to scare women into silence, say activists: 

Iranian schoolgirls mysteriously poisoned

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According to Daemi, the responsibility for these attacks rests completely on the shoulders of the Islamic Republic.

"This falls under crimes against humanity. The regime is using this method to scare society," she said. 

"They want to show that even if they don't enforce their own policies, there will be plainclothes forces that will respond harshly to what they see as threats against the regime."

Nejat Bahrami, a journalist and veteran teacher who previously served in the Ministry of Education in Tehran, says it's unlikely that the regime is not involved in the poisonings.

Bahrami says that given the physical layout of Iranian schools and schoolyards, the poisonings would have to occur within the vicinity of the schools. 

"There is no access to the courtyards from outside, and access to schools in Iran is monitored and incredibly difficult to obtain," he said, noting the attacks also indicate a level of sophistication that make it unlikely that they come from rogue actors.

"The fact that this gas or toxin is controlled to the level that it is not killing the young girls and that the attacks are so widespread across different cities over a long period of time, gives another clue into the state's involvement," he said.

A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran shows shows a demonstrator raising his arms and makes the victory sign during a protest for Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran on September 19, 2022. - Fresh protests broke out on September 19 in Iran over the death of a young woman who had been arrested by the "morality police" that enforces a strict dress code, local media reported. Public anger has grown since authorities on Friday announced the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in a hospital after three days in a coma, following her arrest by Tehran's morality police during a visit to the capital on September 13.
A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran shows a demonstrator raising his arms and making the victory sign during a protest following the death of Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested by police in Iran last September. (AFP/Getty Images)

Regime 'follows Taliban's model'

Alinejad says the regime is trying to give the impression that a radical group opposed to girls attending school is behind these attacks.

However, she believes the Islamic Republic itself is looking for ways to prevent girls from protesting. 

"They don't want to admit it publicly like the Taliban, but they're using terror tactics to scare girls from unveiling at their schools."

Daemi and Bahrami say that even if so-called hardline factions were initially responsible for the attacks, the regime has done nothing to stop the attacks and has since orchestrated and supported them.

Toronto-based Iranian-Canadian gender equality expert Lily Pourzand says the regime has "designed a biological and psychological terror scenario to make schools unsafe for girls."

"The regime wants to prevent girls from attending school and follows the Taliban's model to oppress young girls," she said. 

No arrests made in 3 months

Daemi says the fact that the regime has not made arrests linked to the attacks is yet another reason she suspects the state is behind the poisonings. 

"They have arrested anti-regime protesters in a matter of days and executed them just as quickly by identifying them on cameras, but they haven't been able to find the culprit in these poisonings for the past three months?" she said.

Bahrami says the regime likely hasn't made arrests yet because it wants the element of fear and terror to grow among society.

"They may try to use the arrests to appeal to their small religious base," he said. "They may eventually arrest so-called hardliners to differentiate themselves from those radical elements. Perhaps to buy legitimacy at a time their clerical rule is being challenged more than ever."

Alinejad says people inside Iran know there is "no difference between the radicals and reformists."

"The responsibility of these attacks goes to the entire regime of the Islamic Republic," she said.

Masih Alinejad
Prominent Iranian American women's rights activist Masih Alinejad is calling for an outside organization to investigate the poisonings. (John Badcock/CBC)

Activists want outside investigation

Different regime authorities have indicated that they are now looking into the poisonings, but Alinejad says she and other Iranians don't trust them to investigate properly.

"A regime that killed Mahsa Amini and more than 500 innocent protesters and hanged five innocent protesters cannot be trusted. You cannot put criminals in charge of doing investigations on their own crimes," Alinejad said.

"We need Doctors Without Borders and an accountability mechanism to be on board. We need an outside organization to investigate this biological attack. Where is UNESCO?"

Pourzand says the international community must respond promptly and clearly to what she called "systematic gender-based violence," especially as International Women's Day approaches on Mar. 8. 

"This should be highlighted in every event and discussion that this gender apartheid regime created a biological and psychological war against our young girls in Iran," she said.

CBC News reached out to the Islamic Republic's Permanent Mission at the United Nations in New York and the foreign ministry in Tehran for a response to these allegations but did not hear back.


Nahayat Tizhoosh

Freelance contributor

Nahayat Tizhoosh is a freelance journalist formerly with CBC News Network's Power & Politics.