Since November 2022, over one thousand students, mostly girls, have reportedly been victims of poison attacks in Iran. The girls in schools across several cities have suffered symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, breathing problems, weakness, fatigue and paralysis. Often the students noticed a strange smell – variously described as tangerines, rotten fish, peppermint, bleach or burning plastic – before the onset of the symptoms.
One unnamed parent described what happened to her daughter to the BBC:
My daughter and two of her friends say they heard something like an explosion and immediately afterwards an unpleasant smell – something like burned plastic filled the air. They were asked to leave the class and go into the yard. Many of the students started collapsing in the yard.[i]
The speculation being reported in western media is that the schoolgirls are being poisoned in revenge for their participation in the protests sparked by the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody after she had been arrested for supposedly violating Islamic dress codes. The apparent attacks are also being blamed on religious fundamentalists opposed to the government allowing girls the right to an education.
A spokesman for the Iranian Teachers Trade Association tweeted that ‘the poisoning of students at girls’ schools, which have been confirmed as deliberate acts, was neither arbitrary nor accidental.’ Ned Price, US Department of State spokesman, described the events as ‘very disturbing’ and ‘an abhorrent act’.[ii] Several other Iranian human rights activists have claimed that the poisonings were deliberate.
The deputy education minister Younes Panahi stated on Sunday 26 February that the poisonings were ‘intentional’, adding it was ‘found that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed.’ To confuse matters, he later stated he had been misquoted in saying the poisonings were intentional.
There is similar confusion over the death of an 11-year-old girl Fatemah Rezai from Qom where the first such attacks took place in November 2022. Social media have claimed that she was killed in a poison attack, though state media deny this, a version of events supported by the girl’s father. Many activists are sceptical of the government denial and believe the parent has been forced to say what he said.[iii]
However, several aspects of this narrative don’t make sense. For one thing, there is wide variety in the descriptions of the smells the supposed poisons produced, and likewise in the range of symptoms. Furthermore, if the government wanted to stop girl’s attending school they could simply close them rather than relying on random hit and miss poisonings. And investigations have found no evidence of toxins.[iv]
It seems far more likely that these events are cases of mass hysteria. Mass hysteria (or mass psychogenic illness, to give it the more politically correct name) occurs when emotional conflict or anxiety lead to the simultaneous development of physical or mental conditions in a group of people when there is no organic cause. It’s socially contagious and spreads easily between individuals.[v]
The civil unrest and draconian government response in Iran created an environment of anxiety which is often the condition in which hysterical outbreaks occur. On top of this, like much of the world, Iranian people endured the stress and psychological damage caused by covid policies and the fear of contamination – both by the virus and by the vaccine – are also part of the background to this outbreak of hysteria in young Iranian women.
The first cases of Covid in Iran in 2020 were in the city of Qom – the same city where the first gas poisonings were reported.[vi] Ironically, with many parents calling for classes to be online, Iran’s girls may soon find themselves back in a lockdown.[vii]
Typically, in these outbreaks an unusual odour is noticed, then symptoms rapidly spread from person to person and then to nearby communities. Rumours spread of poison gas.
Well-meaning activists and campaigners (‘moral entrepreneurs’ in sociology speak) often play a key role in sharing and escalating these episodes. Media repeat and exaggerate the reports further spreading the hysteria.
The Arjenyattah Epidemic
A similar event known as the Arjenyattah Epidemic (named after some of the villages involved) took place on the Israeli occupied West Bank in the spring of 1983. A teenage girl in the village of Arrabah noticed a smell of rotten eggs in class on the 23 March and soon developed symptoms including breathing problems, dizziness, headaches and blurred vision. Soon after, fifteen of her classmates developed similar symptoms. The following day, 61 students and five adults were affected.
Newspapers speculated about poisoned gas being the cause and exaggerated the symptoms (replacing blurred vision with blindness, for example), and more cases emerged in nearby villages. It was suspected that Israeli forces were responsible for the gas attack. Some press reports referred to the events as an attempted genocide.
Tests on water, soil and air found no traces of poison and as with the Iranian girls, the victims recovered quickly. Israeli and US psychologists concluded that the events were psychological in nature. The smell that started the episode was identified as coming from the school toilet with the girls in the rooms nearest the toilet most affected.[viii]
Women and girls are more likely to suffer from these epidemics of hysteria than men, which is why these outbreaks often occur in girls’ schools. There’s a long history of similar outbreaks, though none of the media reports about the Iranian ‘poisonings’ mention the possibility of mass hysteria, preferring to use the hysteria as an excuse to demonise Iran.
But these mass panics are a normal human response to stress and anxiety – they’ve always been with us and always will. We can’t prevent them because they are part of human nature.
However, when it comes to mass hysteria, it is far wiser to recognise it than to weaponize it. Because one day the person seized by the hysteria could be you.
[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-64816750; https://www.iranintl.com/en/202302278504
[v] Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Historical Epidemics and Modern Cultures, (Picador: New York, 1997), p.22
[viii] Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall, A Colourful History of Popular Delusions, Prometheus: Lanham, 2015) pp.185-186
One thought on “Iranian School Girl Poisoning: Mass Hysteria?”
I have forwarded an email alert from Paul Weatherhead about a possible case of mass hysteria.