It has been over three months since chemical attacks against Iranian schoolgirls began, leading to the poisoning of over 5000 female students. These assaults seem to be part of a systematic and coordinated campaign aimed at suppressing teenage involvement in protests. Some observers are holding the Islamic regime responsible for the attacks while others attribute them to mass hysteria and anxiety. The article “Are Iranian schoolgirls being poisoned by toxic gas?” published by BBC News, stands out in this context.  

According to the piece, several “key epidemiological factors,” including “the fact that it has been predominantly affecting schoolgirls,” suggest that these incidents were not a chain of poisonings but were instead a case of “mass sociogenic illness” in which symptoms spread among a group with no obvious biomedical cause.

Such an evaluation is problematic for various reasons. First, the reason the poisonings have predominantly affected schoolgirls is that the incidents occurred exclusively in female schools. It is important to note that gender segregation is a common practice in Iranian schools, where boys and girls attend separate schools. However, the poisonings have not been exclusive to female students, with school staff and teachers also having been affected. Second, medical professionals, and even some regime officials, have verified that these incidents are a result of poisoning and not a mass sociogenic illness. Finally, these attacks are being coordinated nationwide and are not limited to a single town or school. These factors suggest the poisonings are not isolated incidents but rather a coordinated campaign with a specific agenda.

Still, if the illness of Iranian schoolgirls is not caused by “mass sociogenic illness,” then it raises fundamental questions around the underlying reason for these incidents. There is a strong possibility these attacks are part of the regime’s systematic crackdown on teenagers for participating in the ongoing protests.

First and foremost, it is important to note that this is not the first instance where the regime has sought revenge against women who resist discriminatory restrictions. The initial occurrence took place at the beginning of the revolution. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, he implemented Sharia law and issued a decree to enforce a dress code for women known as “appropriate” clothing. A group called “Zainab’s Sisters” was created to monitor and regulate the appearance of women in public and some private spaces, further restricting their freedom.

Many women did not accept such discriminatory regulations, and on March 8, 1979, they protested on the streets to oppose Khomeini’s decree. The regime retaliated with extreme violence as a form of retribution. The Majlis passed a law mandating a penalty of 74 lashes for women who refused to comply with the mandatory hijab. Additionally, numerous barriers were established to segregate men and women in society. University classes were separated by gender and female students were prohibited from studying subjects from engineering to agriculture to law. They were also prohibited from attending sports matches and generally disallowed from viewing male athletes on sports fields and participating in certain forms of entertainment like music groups

Yet Iranian women have not succumbed to intimidation and continue to engage in disobedience. But the regime escalated the level of violence to coerce women into compliance. On one occasion during Friday prayers, Hashemi Rafsanjani stated: “regrettably, some women are indifferent to the fact that their hair and bodies may be seen by men. We made a promise to [Ansar] Hezbollah that these women would behave like human beings, but it seems they have no intention of doing so.” Shortly thereafter, Ansar Hezbollah members took over the streets and used violence against women who failed to adhere to the Islamic dress code. Numerous women were imprisoned, abducted, and killed because they were deemed wicked individuals who contaminated society.

Following the 1997 election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as president, women’s movements resumed their campaign to exert pressure on the regime to eliminate discriminatory restrictions. However, the regime has shown little willingness to abolish discriminatory rules on women and, instead, has resorted to an increased level of violence. 

Ayatollah Khamenei urged enforcement of the dress code in its totality. In October 2014, a group of individuals believed to be affiliated with Ansar Hezbollah carried out a series of at least 25 acid attacks, targeting women who were not properly veiled. Several women suffered severe burns to their faces and hands, with one woman dying in the attacks. The attackers acted upon the orders of Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai Nejad, the representative of Ayatollah Khamenei in Isfahan, who said, “we must use coercive force and make society unsafe for those women who do not comply with the hijab law.”

Despite the regime’s severe brutality, the women’s resistance movement persisted. In 2014, the online social movement known as My Stealthy Freedom emerged, allowing women to share images of themselves without the mandatory hijab on social media. Masih Alinejad, the prominent Iranian-American activist, also began using the hashtag #WhiteWednesdays to protest against the compulsory hijab. In 2017, Vida Movahed, a young women’s rights activist, took the movement to the streets and brought it to a new level. She climbed onto a platform on Revolution Street (Khiyaban-e-Enghelab) in central Tehran, removed her headscarf, and waved it in the air, igniting a movement dubbed the Girls of Revolution Street in support of women’s rights. Vida’s courageous act inspired many other women to join the movement, despite the risk of arrest, harassment, and persecution of their families.

As the women’s movement has gained momentum, the regime’s response has been increasingly brutal. Ayatollah Khamenei authorized Ansar Hezbollah forces to “Fire at Will” (Atash be Ekhtyar) when they observed a woman taking off her headscarf in public without waiting for orders from authorities.

In response, Ansar Hezbollah declared the activation of “guidance patrols” through their motorcycle units with the goal of targeting and causing harm to women and spreading chaos in society. The law enforcement’s “chastity police” (Gasht-e Ershad) were also instructed to use force, arresting and torturing women who did not comply with the dress code. In September 2022, they arrested Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish girl, and beat her in custody, ultimately leading to her death, and sparking a nationwide uprising. To suppress the unrest, the regime has killed over 527 young people, including 75 children. 

Women and young girls have shown remarkable resilience against the regime’s discriminatory policies, but now face a new form of violence – poisoning by chemical agents. Certainly, without additional evidence or confirmation, further investigation is needed before a definite conclusion can be reached. However, given the regime’s history of brutality and tendency to escalate violence when older oppressive tactics prove ineffective, it is possible they are resorting to the more extreme and catastrophic approach of chemical attacks to punish and enforce compliance upon young women. If this scenario were to be true, then the Islamic regime must be penalized because the utilization of chemical agents is a blatant violation of human rights and goes against international law.