Family members of schoolgirls who have shown symptoms of a mysterious poisoning protested Tuesday outside the office of the governor of the religious city of Qom.

Around 200 students and at least one teacher in 12 different girls’ schools have reported symptoms such as nausea, headaches, coughing, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, and lethargy since November 30 when 18 students of a secondary school fell ill with similar symptoms. Two weeks later 51 students fell ill in the same school again.

The education department had to close all schools in Qom for two days last week after several other schools were affected, causing a public scare. When students returned Sunday after the weekend and a public holiday Saturday, 37 girls in three different schools fell ill again.

In a commentary Tuesday published by Qom News, Nafiseh Moradi, an Islamic studies researcher at Tehran’s Al-Zahra University, speculated that ultra-religious groups with beliefs similar to those of the Taliban in Afghanistan may be behind the mysterious poisonings.

Moradi said the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education may have inspired the ultra-religious in Qom to carry out attacks on schools for girls to instill fear in students and their families with the ultimate aim of keeping them at home. She advised the authorities to hold classes online until the perpetrators of these terrorist attacks are identified.

Some of the students have had to be hospitalized for up to a week due to the severeness of their symptoms but most others were released within hours. In some cases, symptoms have lasted for weeks.

“We don’t want unsafe schools!”, “Schools must be secured,” “Answer us Mr. Governor!”, hundreds of protesters chanted while also calling the governor “scoundrel” for failing to investigate and address the poisonings in several girls schools.

The city of Qom with a population of over 1.2 million is home to most of Iran's religious seminaries and the popular shrine of Masoumeh, sister of Imam Reza, the eighth imam who is buried in Mashhad.

“You must ensure the safety of our children,” one of the parents shouts in a video posted on social media while others cheer. He says his solution to the problem is not sending his children to school anymore.

So far, authorities have not found the cause of the mysterious illness. Some of the victims have reported falling ill after an aroma, resembling tangerines, filled the air in the classrooms.

Deputy head of Qom Medical Sciences University, Dr. Majid Mohebbi, told the Revolutionary Guards linked Tasnim news agency Monday that MRI and other tests carried out on the affected students all came out normal, and nothing was detected in samples taken from the students and the classrooms. He also stressed that the cause of the illness could not be carbon monoxide poisoning from the heating systems.

Tasnim and other state media refrain from mentioning that the mysterious poisonings happen only in girls’ schools, but many believe it may be intentional targeting of female students. According to Qom News, authorities have been trying to hush the media reporting of the incidents and their cause.

Mojtaba Zolnuri, the representative of Qom in the parliament, has said that there is no doubt that the poisonings is intentional and “a matter of [national] security.”

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