The World Today for August 30, 2023

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NEED TO KNOW

A Toxic Mystery

IRAN

Someone has been poisoning girls in schools in Iran since November last year.

“Victims described smelling peculiar odors, such as citrus, rotting fish, or chlorine, before experiencing symptoms that included vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue,” wrote the New Yorker magazine.

Iranian officials initially admitted that it was happening. Then they changed their tune. They claimed the girls were making up their symptoms or were over-stressed. They also arrested a journalist in Qom who was investigating the poisonings.

More than 60 schools have reported poisonings, however, the Associated Press wrote. The timing of the attacks coincides, incidentally, with civil unrest over protests that have been mostly ongoing in Iran since September after a 22-year-old girl, Mahsa Amini, died while in police custody for wearing her hijab, an Islamic headscarf, improperly.

Similar poisonings have also occurred in Afghanistan, where hardliners in the Taliban-backed government have resisted educating girls since they took control of the country after the withdrawal of American forces in 2021, CNN added. It would be easy to surmise that radicals within Iran committed the poisonings in their country.

However, United Nations experts discovered that poisonings that occurred between 2012 and 2016 in Afghanistan were most likely due to “mass psychogenic illness” – a mass delusion, potentially, in other words – because they found no evidence of chemicals or toxins, wrote Macquarie University Law School lecturer Shireen Daft in the Conversation.

An Iranian analyst at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington DC, argued for an alternative theory. The lack of urgency among security forces and their failure to find a culprit despite having deployed spy cameras throughout major cities, the suppression of reporting on the incidents, including by families and medical staff, and other signs suggest that officials within the Iranian regime might be to blame. The poisonings might be designed to scare students who have been at the forefront of protests against the regime, the analyst theorized.

The student protests are weighing heavily upon Iranian leaders’ minds. Iranian security forces have been rounding up and arresting activists in the run-up to the first anniversary of Amini’s death, for example, to forestall unrest, according to NBC News.

The Iranian regime’s openness to negotiating a prisoner release with the US in exchange for $6 billion in frozen energy revenues could be a sign of the Iranian leadership’s wish to garner some cash and defuse tensions with its greatest international adversary, Al-Monitor added.

In the meantime, analysts say, it’s likely the poisonings will continue.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Emptying Pockets

COLOMBIA

Thousands of Colombians in cars and on motorbikes marched across the Latin American country this week to protest against the government’s decision to raise the price of fuel by 50 percent, the latest sign of discontent against the policies of leftist President Gustavo Petro, the Associated Press reported.

Protesters and opposition politicians criticized the monthly price hikes, saying they make it harder for small businesses to operate and will raise the price of food.

The Colombian government has been cutting back on fuel subsidies in recent months in an effort to pay its debts to the national oil company Ecopetrol – which produces most of the country’s fuel – and to free up more funds for social programs.

Oil prices in Colombia have risen from $2.50 per gallon in August 2022 to more than $3.40 per gallon. Officials have said that they want gasoline prices to reach around $4 per gallon by the end of 2023.

Although this amount would mirror current fuel prices in the United States, the minimum wage in the country is around $280 a month.

Petro – Colombia’s first leftist leader – has said that the gasoline subsidies mostly benefited wealthier Colombians who own vehicles. Still, observers noted that he has expressed a willingness to negotiate gasoline prices with some groups.

The demonstrations come amid frustration with Petro’s administration a year after he was elected. Petro vowed to reduce poverty and make peace with Colombia’s remaining rebel groups.

However, the government is still struggling to stop violence in rural parts of the country and improve Colombia’s economy.

Dark Rainbows

UGANDA

A Ugandan man became the first person in the country to be charged with “aggravated homosexuality,” an offense that is punishable by death under a recently enacted anti-gay law, Reuters reported Tuesday.

Ugandan authorities said the 20-year-old individual was charged this month after he “performed unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 41-year-old man. But they did not specify why the act was considered aggravated, nor did they confirm if other people have been accused of similar charges.

The defendant’s lawyer also did not provide details of the case but added that four other people are being charged with other offenses under Uganda’s new legislation.

In May, the country toughened its anti-LGBTQ laws despite local and international criticism, as well as threats of sanctions.

The bill sentences defendants to life in prison for same-sex intercourse, but its most peculiar provision is one about “aggravated homosexuality.” This provision includes repeat offenses, gay sex that transmits terminal illnesses, or same-sex intercourse with a minor, an elderly person or a person with disabilities.

Individuals found guilty of such charges face the death penalty.

Uganda has not executed anyone in around 20 years, however.

Dress Codes

FRANCE

France will ban female students in state schools from wearing the abaya, the latest policy targeting Muslim dress that the government insists is aimed at preserving the country’s secular values even as critics accuse it of being Islamophobic, CNN reported.

French Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced this week that the ban will come into force at the start of the new school term in September.

Attal emphasized that the decision is in line with France’s principles of “laïcité,” a term referring to the separation of state institutions and religions.

But the move received criticism from opposition lawmakers, who described it as a “new Islamophobic campaign.” Others have cautioned that the idea of laïcité has been hijacked to justify anti-Islam positions.

The abaya is defined as a loose robe-like dress that is worn by some women in Muslim-majority countries. But there is a public debate about whether the garment can be considered a religious symbol.

Even so, the new rule is the latest in a series of divisive restrictions or bans on garments worn by Muslim women in recent years.

In 2004, France banned students from wearing headscarves, such as the Islamic hijab, in schools. Six years later, officials banned full-face veils in public, angering some of France’s five million-strong Muslim community, according to Sky News.

DISCOVERIES

Curiously Cautious

Scientists have discovered that curious orangutans remain vigilant and cautious when coming across strange objects.

A research team closely observed how the great ape species responded to novelty in the wild, the first such study to do so, the Washington Post reported.

When in captivity, great apes generally display a curious side and spend a long time exploring new objects. But researchers have wondered how this behavior manifests in the wild.

For their experiments, the team observed orangutans in the forest at Suaq Balimbing, a protected biodiversity area on Indonesia’s Sumatra island.

They placed tree trunks filled with local forest honey near the primates and successfully captured the animals’ curiosity in 170 trials.

The team noticed that age determined the levels of creatures’ level of curiosity: Immature and younger primates spent “significantly longer” time looking at the objects and were quicker to approach them, compared with older ones.

However, both groups would not directly touch the object and employed the use of a tool, such as a stick, to do that. They were also less likely to approach the sweet treat in areas where food was abundant.

Social connections also influenced their curiosity, with the researchers noting that an orangutan was more likely to get closer and touch the object when accompanied by another ape.

The authors explained that the findings could shed some light on how human curiosity evolved.

“We often think of learning and innovation as solo acts, but this might not have been the case in our early history,” said first author Caroline Schuppli. “If novelty was the spark, then our social lives might have provided the accelerant.”

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