Taliban Terror or Mass Hysteria: Who Is Poisoning Afghanistan’s Girls?

A recent spate of incidents in which dozens of girls have been forced from school, feeling sick, has set Afghanistan in a tizzy over what the source of the mysterious maladies may be.

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Afghan school girls receive first aid after inhaling some mysterious poisonous gas in Jowzjan city in Sheberghan province, Afghanistan, July 2, 2012

On April 17, 150 girls were transported from their school in the Afghan province of Takhar to a hospital, reporting signs of dizziness, nausea and headaches. Some fainted, and some were vomiting when they arrived; all were released after a few hours. A month later, at least 120 more girls and three teachers in the same province complained of the same symptoms and were again taken in. The next week, 160 girls in Taluquan, the capital of Takhar province, reported being ill. All of these incidents were followed by reports suggesting that either the schools’ air or drinking water had been contaminated. School poisonings have been going on for over three years in Afghanistan — but the recent spate marks a large increase from years past.

On June 6, the Afghan government officially accused the Taliban of poisoning hundreds of girls across the country. But results from chemical testings of school wells and samples taken from the afflicted students show no strange toxins; analysts also suggest that the Taliban do not possess the sophistication to create chemicals that would leave no trace. Still, one man has since confessed to paying girls to take chemicals in their schools. “It was wrong, it was un-Islamic, and it was my fault,” the suspect told a BBC reporter as an Afghan intelligence officer looked on. “I made a mistake.” The man is one of three suspects being held for questioning about the events by the Afghan government; 15 were originally arrested.

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Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban denies that they would target young girls despite their open opposition to the education of girls and women. They blame Pakistani infiltrators. Still others, the World Health Organization included, say there have been no poisonings at all (as there is, indeed, no concrete evidence that has been found) and that young girls are simply experiencing the somewhat rare phenomenon of mass hysteria from living in a war-torn country their entire lives. The evidence for mass hysteria is in fact fairly convincing. The WHO released its findings to the Daily Telegraph, showing that 32 of the 34 schools affected gave samples of water, blood and urine — over 200 samples in all have been tested — and all such searches turned up negative. “According to preliminary findings, incidents’ analysis and the prevailing situation, Mass Psychological Illness is the most probable cause,” a statement from the WHO said. There is also the strange fact that very few teachers have been affected by whatever this mystery malady is.

Mass hysteria is a trauma typically diagnosed in young women — although the dangers of writing off young women as being “hysterical” when they are actually sick are clear. Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, a women’s rights organization based in New York City and Kabul, insists these events were a Taliban attack. “Girls are sick, and people just don’t get sick because of hysteria. The events are real, and it’s happening and it’s serious,” Naderi says. According to Naderi, these poisonings are part of a spring offensive by the Taliban that includes burning down schools and killing teachers. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), also believes the Taliban to be responsible and that the attacks are intended to intimidate girls into not attending school as the U.S. and its allies prepare to withdraw troops by 2014.

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Pointing the finger at the Taliban is hardly a case of wild speculation: the Ministry of Education has been forced to shut down 550 schools in 11 Taliban-heavy provinces because it could not guarantee the safety of students. For many Afghan schoolgirls, Taliban-inspired fear already haunts their daily lives. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission Report said that more than 50% of parents keep their daughters away from school for safety reasons: the schools are often far from home, and parents dread what may happen on the long walk to first period.

Still, the situation in Afghanistan has improved in the past decade, especially in terms of education. “Ten years ago, 11 years ago, there was nothing,” says Naderi. “Basically, no girls were in school, there were no school buildings, there was no education, there was no curriculum, there was nothing.” In the years since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul, the education system has improved drastically: fewer than 1 million students were enrolled in school in 2007; now 7 million children are active students, and 2.5 million of those are female, up from only 5,000 when the Taliban were in power. However, as the Afghan Ministry of Education readily admits, the conditions are far from satisfactory: half the buildings where these children attend school are dilapidated, many are unsanitary, and few among the growing population of female students make it past ninth grade.

After the NDS took in suspects, another incident took place. In June, over 100 students, male and female, were taken to a hospital in Bamiyan province after vomiting, fainting and reporting fatigue, headaches and dizziness. Perhaps, as many professionals have said, the effects of living in a war zone for the first nine or 10 or 30 years of life can lead to events such as these. But if so, what does that say about the state of life for young girls in Afghanistan, and how can it be improved? Afghanistan has been at war for over 30 years; despite efforts to lessen the stress and struggle of such a life, the withdrawal of American troops — for better or worse — may create greater change and turmoil in a country that already lives in fear. Perhaps, as Naderi says, people believe this is simply mass hysteria because “they don’t know what else to do.” This way, parents will at least continue to send their girls to school.

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Despite the announcement from the WHO, Afghan police forces are still convinced that at least a few of the incidents in the past three years must have been plotted by the Taliban. Naderi says the Afghan media have put these events on display, causing many citizens to call for action from the government. If so, it’s a positive sign that Afghans are standing up and taking responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of their young girls. “The civil society isn’t keeping quiet about this, and we’re going to make sure that the government isn’t keeping quiet about this,” Naderi says. “This is a serious event, and it should be taken seriously.”