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Schoolgirl Poisonings in Iran: Will Women Ever Have the Right to Education?

Staff writer Jessica Berry on the poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran and its implications for women’s access to education. 

Beginning in late November in central Iran, over 7,068 Iranian students have fallen ill in over 103 schools due to poisoned gas. All the students fall sick and experience the same symptoms including the feeling that their eyes are burning and their throats are closing. Other more severe symptoms include temporary paralysis. It has also been reported that this had been occurring in primary schools as well. One girl has been reported dead, linked to the poisonings, as a result of an acute infection.

It began in the holy city of Qom, in south Tehran where fifty girls fell sick and all had to be hospitalised, with many of them being held for observation. There are no confirmed figures on how many students are ill but the figure is large, as what we can confirm is that this is occurring in 25 out of the 31 Iranian provinces and parents are taking their kids out of school over it. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says there is no doubt the poisonings are deliberate and that those arrested and found guilty would be subject to the death penalty. The education minister, Yousef Nouri, issued an apology for the conditions inside schools, which seems like one of the most heart-breaking and softest spots to instigate violence. Some Iranian politicians suggested it may be religious extremists. Others suggested it was done by foreign enemies of the Islamic republic in attempt to smear it. Khamenei offered no clue as to who or what groups may be behind the poisonings. Shortly after Khamenei’s comments, Iran’s judiciary chief also promised the courts will act swiftly and suggested those responsible would face the death penalty.

The driver of a truck carrying chemicals that was seen near several affected schools has been arrested, state television said last week. But no other arrests have been confirmed and authorities have not provided a definitive explanation of the poisonings. Khamenei has not named any countries, but Iran has regularly accused Western powers and Israel of being behind unrest within its borders, including months of protests that spread across Iran last September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.

There is a sinister correlation between women in Iran becoming a powerful tidal wave of anti-government protest, including school girls, and the targeting of women in schools. Foreign-based figures opposed to the establishment have suggested the state is responsible for the attacks, accusing it of trying to exact “revenge” on schoolgirls who have circulated images and videos of months of protests that erupted across Iran in September in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death. Some have drawn parallels with the Taliban’s attacks in the 2000s and 2010s to poison schoolgirls to try to keep them from receiving an education. Between the Taliban in Afghanistan banning women’s education, Iran now having an unsafe place for women to get their education all the way to the Everyone’s Invited campaign in the UK, the educational oppression of women continues and where women can really be safe to receive an education, one of the most fundamental human rights, comes into question.

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