The shocking mass poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran has caused an unprecedented human rights scandal, generating widespread concern both domestically and internationally. Between November 2022 and March 2023, thousands of schoolgirls at numerous schools across the country were subject to deliberate poisoning, with the outbreak, which began in the city of Qom, quickly spreading to other provinces nationwide, leading to protests and demands for justice.
Reports from human rights groups and government officials indicate that up to 7,000 schoolgirls were affected by the poisonings, with many of the victims exhibiting acute and traumatic symptoms such as respiratory distress, numbness of the limbs, heart palpitations, headaches, nausea, and vomiting, and hundreds being hospitalised as a result. Despite the distinctive odours that all the affected girls reported smelling immediately before falling ill, including citrus fruit or chloride, the government initially dismissed the reports of poisoning as “rumours,” attributing these odours to underlying diseases and anxiety among the students.
As the poisonings became more frequent, widespread and impossible for the regime to brush under the carpet, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described them as a “huge, unforgivable crime” and called for severe punishment, including the death penalty, for the perpetrators. The public were sceptical of his expressions of concern, given the timing of the shocking attacks amid nationwide protests over the regime’s repression of personal freedoms, in which young women, including schoolchildren, played a prominent role, as well as widespread anger at economic struggles, and fuel shortages, adding to the mounting discontent and frustration among the Iranian people.
Aside from the Supreme Leader’s belated speech, the Iranian government’s woefully delayed and dismissive response to the poisonings drew domestic and international condemnation. The United Nations Human Rights Council and various governments, including the United States, called for transparent investigations and accountability for those responsible. Human rights organisations strongly criticised the Iranian government for failing to protect schoolgirls and ensure their right to education, emphasising the need for international support to address the crisis.
The poisoning incidents also significantly threaten the progress made in female education in Iran over the past four decades, one of the regime’s very few pro-female achievements. Before the so-called Islamic Revolution of 1979, female literacy rates in the country stood at only 28 per cent, but by 2021, the literacy rate among girls aged from 15 to 24 had soared to 99 per cent. The United Nations even recognised Iran for its achievements in closing the gender gap in education. However, the poisonings and the subsequent impact on girls’ education have undermined these few, hard-won gains.
It should be noted that young women, particularly schoolgirls and female students, have played a crucial role in Iranian political activism in recent years. They have been at the forefront of protests demanding personal freedoms and fundamental human rights, challenging repressive misogynistic legislation such as the state’s compulsory hijab policy. For the vast majority of Iran’s population, targeting schoolgirls through these poisonings is seen as an attempt to impede their participation in demonstrations and limit their potential and power.
Even some senior Iranian officials have acknowledged the perpetrators’ intention to disrupt girls’ education and prevent them from attending schools where protests often originate. The poisoning incidents have raised concerns about the broader issue of women’s rights in Iran, highlighting women’s ongoing struggles in a society where strict dress codes and restrictions on personal freedoms persist.
The timeline of events related to the poisonings reveals a pattern of systemic denial and attempts to suppress information. Initially, the government dismissed the incidents as rumours, but mounting evidence forced them to acknowledge the intentional nature of these poisonings. While a number of arrests were made, doubts still remain regarding the true motives behind the attacks, not to mention the adequacy of the investigations.
Obviously, the mass poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran represents a severe violation of human rights, particularly the right to education and personal security. The Iranian government’s initial dismissiveness and delayed response have only exacerbated the crisis. This underlines the need for the international community to unite in demanding transparent investigations, accountability, and support for the affected schoolgirls and their families, in addition to highlighting the urgent need to address the broader issue of women’s rights in Iran and particularly the systemic discrimination faced by the ethnic South Azerbaijani women in the country.
— Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies (@DialogueInstit1) February 20, 2023
One of the most alarming, but under-reported aspects of the situation is the racial element of the regime’s persecution, namely the systematic violation of the rights of the South Azerbaijani women in Iran, who are not only limited by the restrictions imposed by the regime’s customary stifling oppression of women’s rights, but afflicted twice over by also being subjected to racist discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity.
As a result, South Azerbaijani women are facing a three-pronged fight, for their rights as women, as citizens, and as South Azerbaijanis facing a constant assault on their culture and heritage.
— Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies (@DialogueInstit1) March 20, 2023
The regime’s racist laws against non-Persian peoples in Iran mean that the South Azerbaijanis and other ethnic minorities’ lives are constrained from birth; mothers are denied the right to select their own choice of names for their babies, which must be chosen from a list of regime-approved Farsi-language names, with Azerbaijani names deemed ‘contrary to Islamic culture’. This restriction not only infringes upon the cultural and linguistic rights of South Azerbaijani families but also denies them the ability to preserve their ethnic identity and pass this heritage on to future generations. This is another of many clear examples of the oppressive and racist policies employed by the Iranian regime with the objective of forcibly assimilating ethnic minorities and suppressing or attempting to annihilate their distinctive cultural heritage.
The issue of the suppression of the South Azerbaijani women’s rights in Iran is not recent, but is an ongoing struggle that has received insufficient attention from the international community. The lack of awareness and action regarding these human rights violations has perpetuated an environment of impunity, allowing the Iranian authorities to continue their discriminatory practices with little consequence.
In light of these grave violations, it is crucial for the international community, including politicians like US Senator Tim Kaine, to take a stand against the systematic violation of the South Azerbaijani women’s rights in Iran. The following actions are urgently needed:
- Regular monitoring of the rights of South Azerbaijani women in Iran: Continuous monitoring and reporting on the situation can help shed light on ongoing violations and provide a basis for further action.
- Investigation of systematic violations: A thorough investigation into the systematic violation of South Azerbaijani women’s rights in Iran is essential. This investigation should uncover the root causes of these violations, identify the responsible parties, and hold them accountable for their actions.
- Political and legal assessment: The blatant violations of the rights of South Azerbaijani women in Iran should be subject to a comprehensive political and legal evaluation. This assessment should involve international bodies, human rights organisations, and governments to ensure an impartial review and an appropriate response.
- Condemnation of chemical-biological terror acts: The international community, through influential voices like Senator Kaine, must unite in condemning the chemical-biological terror acts targeting girls’ schools in Iran. By unequivocally denouncing these acts and expressing solidarity with the victims, the international community can pressure the Iranian regime to take immediate action and prevent further harm.
It is also essential to recognise that the struggle for the rights of the Azerbaijani women in Iran is part of a broader national movement for self-determination in South Azerbaijan. The National Resistance Organisation of Azerbaijan and other South Azerbaijani activists have advocated for the economic, political, social, cultural, and human rights of the originally Turkish people in South Azerbaijan. The resistance movement utilises methods of democratic protest and civil struggle, upholding non-violence as a core principle. The National Resistance Organisation of Azerbaijan (ANRO), established in 2006, actively works towards reclaiming the withheld rights and fundamental liberties of the Azerbaijani Turkish nation in South Azerbaijan.
The struggle for self-determination and protecting the South Azerbaijani women’s rights in Iran is deep-rooted, with historical and cultural contexts. South Azerbaijan, the northwestern region of Iran, has been home to a significant Azerbaijani Turkic population for centuries. However, since the establishment of the Pahlavi Monarchy in 1925, Persian ethno- nationalism has become the dominant credo regardless of the governing regime’s ideology, resulting in an authoritarian mindset and the marginalisation and oppression of non-Persian identities and cultures. Given this background, the Turkish culture, language, and ethnic identity of the South Azerbaijani people have been one of the prime targets of successive regimes for erasure and suppression.
The discriminatory policies implemented by the Iranian authorities have systematically deprived the people of South Azerbaijan of their economic, political, social, and cultural opportunities. Mass humiliation, as experienced by South Azerbaijani society, has perpetuated a cycle of marginalisation, discrimination and frustration among the majority of people of South Azerbaijan who’ve faced almost a century of constant economic hardship, political marginalisation, restricted access to education, and limited cultural expression.
The National Movement of Azerbaijan, of which the National Resistance Organisation is a part, first emerged in the early 1900s as a response to the growing Persian chauvinism of the time and the resulting systematic oppression of the South Azerbaijanis. Ever since then, this movement has worked to safeguard the national historical existence, identity, and dignity of the Turkish nation in South Azerbaijan. In the succeeding century, it has gained significant traction, becoming a powerful and widely-supported political movement advocating for Turkish society’s social and collective rights and freedoms in South Azerbaijan.
The struggle for self-determination in South Azerbaijan is not an isolated movement but rather a reflection of the broader aspirations of the South Azerbaijani people for equality, recognition, and justice. The campaign calls for an end to the oppressive policies that deny their cultural and linguistic rights and the right to participate fully in political and social life. The quest for self-determination is seen as a legitimate and necessary right for the people of South Azerbaijan to reclaim its cultural heritage and shape its future.
As noted above, the Azerbaijani National Resistance Organisation (ANRO) is committed to democracy, civil rights, and non-violence. It seeks to raise awareness about the ongoing human rights violations against Azerbaijani women in Iran and to work towards mobilising international support to address these issues. The organisation believes that the conditions necessary for the South Azerbaijani people to exercise their right to self-determination have been fulfilled, and it stands in solidarity with the South Azerbaijanis in their pursuit of freedom and equality.
By raising awareness about the oppression of the South Azerbaijani Turkic people, conducting thorough investigations, and demanding accountability, we can work towards a future where Azerbaijani women in Iran can enjoy their fundamental rights without fear or discrimination. We must stand together in solidarity and support the aspirations of the people of South Azerbaijan for self-determination and the protection of their cultural heritage.
In addition to these actions, achieving real and lasting change requires collaboration between national and international actors. Governments, human rights organisations, and civil society must work together to amplify the voices of South Azerbaijani women in Iran, promote their rights, and hold the Iranian government accountable for its actions. Through the use of diplomatic channels, public awareness campaigns, and legal avenues, the international community can exert pressure on Iran to respect and protect the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their ethnic or cultural background.
The mass poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran is a distressing manifestation of the broader human rights violations against South Azerbaijani women and the Azerbaijani community in Iran, demonstrating the vulnerability of Azerbaijani girls and women who face continuous violations of their fundamental civil rights and suffer from systemic discrimination.
Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted approach. First and foremost, the Iranian government must take immediate and decisive action to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the poisonings. This includes conducting a transparent and independent investigation to determine the root causes of the attacks and ensure that justice is served. The government should also prioritise the safety and well-being of South Azerbaijani schoolgirls by implementing stringent security measures in schools and providing support services to affected students.
Moreover, the international community must maintain pressure on the Iranian regime, compelling the regime to fulfill its obligations regarding human rights. The use of diplomatic means, including discussions held at international forums and dialogue with Iranian authorities, can effectively highlight the dire situation faced by the South Azerbaijani women and advocate for substantial improvements. In this context, considering targeted measures, such as further sanctions, can help to ensure accountability for those involved in the violations and to deter any future instances of discrimination and violence. By utilising such a comprehensive approach, combining diplomatic engagement and potential consequences, the international community can strive to bring about positive change and safeguard the rights of South Azerbaijani women in Iran.
Support for the South Azerbaijani people’s organisations like the Azerbaijan National Resistance Organization (ANRO) is also crucial. These organisations play a vital role in advocating for the rights of Azerbaijani women and raising awareness about their plight. By providing resources, funding, and platforms for these organisations to amplify their voices, the international community can strengthen the collective efforts to bring about positive change.
Education and awareness campaigns are other critical aspects of addressing the rights violations against the South Azerbaijani women in Iran. By promoting cultural diversity, gender equality, and tolerance, these initiatives can help challenge discriminatory attitudes and encourage inclusivity. It is essential to empower the South Azerbaijani women to assert their rights, promote community engagement, and foster a sense of solidarity among marginalised groups.
Ultimately, the long-term goal should be to create an inclusive and pluralistic society in Iran where all individuals, regardless of ethnicity, can enjoy equal rights and opportunities. This requires comprehensive legal reforms that prohibit discrimination based on race and gender, strengthen protections for minority groups, and ensure equal access to education, employment, and healthcare. It also necessitates a shift in societal attitudes and stereotypes, fostering a culture of respect, acceptance, and appreciation for diversity.
The struggle for the rights of the South Azerbaijani women in Iran is not an isolated issue; it is part of a broader movement for human rights, equality, and justice. By standing in solidarity with South Azerbaijani women and supporting their fight, we contribute to a more just and equitable world. Let us raise our voices, advocate for change, and work tirelessly until everyone can live in dignity, freedom, and equality, regardless of their background. Together, we can make a difference and create a future where human rights are respected, protected, and upheld for all.
In a letter addressed to human rights organisations and world leaders, the National Resistance Organisation of Azerbaijan has raised awareness about the systematic violation of women’s rights in Iran, particularly about the incidents of serial poisoning targeting female students. The organisation has called attention to the discrimination faced by South Azerbaijani women and has emphasised the urgency of addressing these human rights violations.
The letter highlights the importance of protecting and advocating for the rights of Azerbaijani women who have suffered from discrimination and oppression. It calls for international support and solidarity in seeking justice and equality for these women.
By taking legal action, the National Resistance Organisation of Azerbaijan aims to hold accountable those responsible for the discrimination against South Azerbaijani women. The organisation recognises the significance of legal mechanisms in seeking redress and ensuring that the rights of Azerbaijani women are upheld.
The lawsuit initiated by the National Resistance Organisation of Azerbaijan is a powerful statement against the injustices faced by South Azerbaijani women in Iran. It emphasises the importance of fighting for the rights of marginalised communities and seeking legal remedies to address systemic discrimination and human rights violations.
The organisation’s efforts to shed light on the discrimination faced by South Azerbaijani women and to seek justice through legal channels contribute to a broader movement for equality, justice, protection and strengthening of human rights. It underscores the importance of international support and collaboration in advocating for the rights of marginalised communities and holding accountable those responsible for human rights abuses.
The letter serves as a reminder that the struggle for women’s rights and equality in Iran is ongoing and that collective international action is essential in addressing and satisfactorily resolving these issues. By raising awareness and taking legal action, the National Resistance Organisation of Azerbaijan aims to create meaningful change and ensure that the rights of the Azerbaijani women are respected and protected.
In conclusion, the letter from the National Resistance Organisation of Azerbaijan highlights the systematic violation of women’s rights in Iran, particularly the discrimination faced by South Azerbaijani women. By initiating legal action and seeking international support, the organisation emphasises the need for justice and equality for all. This is a powerful reminder that the fight for women’s rights is ongoing and requires the collective effort of individuals, organisations, and governments to achieve meaningful change.
By Babek Chalabi
Babek Chalabi, a South Azerbaijani activist based in Washington DC. Chalabi is the founder of ArazNews.org. Babek tweets under @BabekChelebi.