Photo by Artin Bakhan on Unsplash
Photo by Artin Bakhan on Unsplash

Iran: Repeated chemical attacks on schools highlight gender-based violence and barriers to girls’ education

published 17 July 2023 updated 21 March 2024

New research published by Education International maps the incidence of gas poisoning attacks on girls’ schools in Iran during the nationwide protests for “Woman, Life, Freedom.”

From December 2022 to April 2023, there were 358 instances of gas poisoning attacks noted by this research, which were part of the ruling powers' campaign to suppress the movement for women’s rights.

Education International, in partnership with the Coordinating Council of Iranian Teacher Trade Associations (CCITTA), researched the incidents of the chemical attacks in the report “Chemical Attacks on female students in Iran.”

These attacks took place at girls’ schools, disrupting their education, their health, and instilling fear, forcing parents to keep girls at home. The students reported experiencing physical symptoms including sore eyes and throats, difficulty breathing, headaches, stomach aches, low blood pressure, weak legs and heart palpitations.

“Ensuring that all students have access to a safe, quality and equitable education is one of EI’s priorities. The repeated chemical attacks on girls’ schools in Iran is a threat to students’ health and safety as well as to their right to education and is a manifestation of a deeply patriarchal system,” says David Edwards, EI General Secretary.

He added that “EI stands in solidarity with the students, teachers, education support personnel and others in the education community in Iran who are navigating a response to these horrific events and persevering in the effort to develop a safe and inclusive learning environment for all.”

Woman, Life, Freedom

In September 2022, people in Iran and around the world used the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” to protest the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after arrest by Iran’s ‘morality police.’ The morality police enforce rules around dress, including the wearing of hijabs.

While government officials declared that the cause of Amini’s death was a heart attack, Iranian medical officials and Amini’s family argue that based on Amini’s symptoms in the hospital, including bleeding from her ear and bruises under her eyes, the more likely cause of her death was a blow to the head in the morality police van1.

People across Iran stood in solidarity with Amini and her family and protested for justice for Amini, calling for a broader need for women’s rights in Iran. As a part of the protests, some Iranian women cut their hair short and burned their hijabs in resistance to the Islamic Republic and morality police2.

The protests evolved into part of an ongoing movement for women’s rights in Iran, advocating against gender-based violence and for equality.

Chemical attacks

During the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests, a series of chemical attacks took place with increasing severity in provinces across Iran. On March 13, 2023, the Deputy Director of Health Ministry acknowledged that 13,000 girls across Iran had been treated for poisoning.

The chemical attacks are a demonstration of the severe barriers to girls’ education in Iran. Discriminatory practices rooted in religious political movements and the establishment of an authoritarian regime after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 has suppressed women in the education system, through gender segregation, biased textbooks, and restrictive dress codes, among other measures.

The attacks began to peak in early 2023. On February 6, 2023, 13 schools were attacked, and on March 5, 2023, 50 schools were attacked. The research report describes how “the poisoning of female students during protests highlights the ruling powers' attempts to suppress resistance and instil fear. Chemical attacks on schools disrupt the education of female students, and the lack of official data and transparency from the ruling powers suggest their involvement.”

The CCITTA, an affiliate of EI, advocates for access to quality education and the rights of teachers and education support personnel in Iran. Its goal in publishing a report on the chemical attacks on girls’ schools is to raise awareness and advocate for action which ensures girls' right to education is respected and realised.

"Education is the antidote to oppression, and the CCITTA will relentlessly advocate for access to quality education and the rights of teachers and education support personnel in Iran,” the CCITTA explained. “This report on the chemical attacks on girls' schools empowers us all to raise awareness, capture the attention of the media, and fight relentlessly for transformative change."

You can read the full report here.