A criminal investigation is under way in Iran into how it is that almost 700 schoolgirls have been poisoned by toxic gas in Iran since November.
A commonly held theory is that the perpetrators are attempting to force the students’ schools to shut.
Though none of the girls have died, dozens have suffered respiratory problems, dizziness, nausea and fatigue. The poisoned girls have reported smelling something like tangerine or rotten fish before falling ill.
Iran’s prosecutor general announced last week that he was commencing a criminal investigation. However, he said the information available only suggested "the possibility of criminal and premeditated acts".
Deputy Health Minister Younes Panahi told a February 26 news conference that the girls had been poisoned by chemicals that "are not military grade and are publicly available". He called for calm.
However, after stating that it was "evident that some people wanted all schools, especially girls' schools, to be closed down," Panahi later said that his remarks had been misunderstood.
It’s notable that the poisonings have largely occurred in Qom, a religious city home to important Shia Muslim shrines as well as the religious leadership that underpins the theocratic establishment of Iran.
The first poisoning took place on November 30. Eighteen students at Nour Technical School in Qom were taken to hospital. More than 10 girls' schools have been targeted in the province around Qom since the first poisoning. Also, local reports told of 194 girls poisoned in the past week at four schools in the city of Borujerd, in the western Lorestan province, and 37 poisoned at Khayyam Girls' School in Pardis, near Tehran.
Earlier this month, a protest of 100 people or more took place outside the governor's office in Qom.
"You are obliged to ensure my children's safety! I have two daughters," one father shouted in a video widely shared on social media. "Two daughters... and all I can do is not let them go to school."
"This is a war!" declared a woman, as cited by the BBC. "They are doing this in a girls' high school in Qom to force us to sit at home. They want girls to stay at home."
Some Iranians speculate that the attacks on schoolgirls are a form of revenge mounted by hardliners or extremists for the role schoolgirls have played in the anti-regime unrest seen since last September. Protests against the clerical rulers have included many instances of schoolgirls pulling off their headscarves and chanting anti-establishment slogans.