The tragic deaths, reportedly because the religious police hindered the rescue operation, caused outrage that eventually led to their powers being curtailed
On March 11, 2002, 15 young women lost their lives in a fire at their school in Makkah when members of the religious police prevented Civil Defense officers from entering and stopped pupils from fleeing the building because the girls weren’t wearing abayas or headscarves.
The tragedy, which shocked the country and the wider Islamic world, was a tipping point in the relationship between the state and citizens of Saudi Arabia and the religious police, aka the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Since the tragedy, the committee, a government body established in 1940 but reinvented in more radical form in 1979 in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and the seizure of Makkah’s Grand Mosque by religious extremists, has been progressively stripped of most of its powers.
Once a common sight on the streets, its officers and volunteers are now rarely seen in a rapidly modernizing Saudi Arabia that is benefiting from the reforms outlined in Vision 2030 and, under the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reverting to a more moderate form of Islam.
JEDDAH: The tragic death of 15 young girls in the Makkah girls’ school fire that occurred in March 2002 will forever be a black mark in our memory, not only because of the number of innocent girls who lost their lives but also because of the circumstances that led to their death and their implications.
It was reported that the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — Saudi Arabia’s so-called religious police, or more commonly known as the “hayaa” — prevented the schoolgirls from escaping the burning building and hindered rescue workers from entering the building because the students were not covered in their abayas and headscarves.
The actions of the religious police caused outrage and condemnation both inside the country and internationally. A government inquiry concluded that the educational authorities were responsible for neglecting fire safety at the school, but rejected the accusations that the actions of religious police contributed to the deaths, despite the accounts of eyewitnesses and Civil Defense officers.
Nevertheless, due to public anger and criticism of the religious police, the General Presidency for Girls’ Education, which administered girls’ schools and was controlled by conservative clerics, was scrapped.
An Arab News team which visited the school yesterday found a large number of abayas (black gowns), shoes and bags left by the girls in the rush to get out of the building following the fire.
From a report in Arab News on March 12, 2002
The fire at Makkah’s Intermediate School No. 31 (for girls aged 13 to 15) started on the morning of March 11, 2002, caused by an unattended cigarette in a room on the top floor, according to the official inquiry. Others claimed it was caused by an electrical short circuit from a stove in the tearoom. It quickly spread, the girls panicked and rushed toward a narrow stairwell in the three-story building, where the majority of the deaths occurred as a staircase collapsed. Fifteen girls died in the tragedy and more than 50 were injured. The ill-equipped rented property was overcrowded, with more than 800 pupils and about 50 teachers. The inquiry found that the school lacked fire extinguishers, alarms and emergency stairs and exits. Furthermore, the windows, as in all girls’ schools, were covered with iron grilles and could not be opened. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
15 pupils — nine Saudis, an Egyptian, a Guinean, a Chadian, a Nigerian and a student from Niger — die in a fire at Intermediate Girls’ School No. 31 in Makkah.
Arab News publishes a Civil Defense report accusing the religious police of having “intentionally obstructed the efforts to evacuate the girls,” resulting in an “increased number of casualties.”
The head of the General Presidency for Girls’ Education is forced into early retirement and the organization, judged responsible for safety failings and overcrowding at the school, is merged with the Education Ministry.
A royal decree strips religious police of privileges, bans them from pursuing, questioning or arresting anyone suspected of a crime and urges them to “encourage virtue and forbid vice by kindly and gently advising.”
King Abdullah replaces the head of the religious police with a more moderate figure.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledges to return Saudi Arabia to its past of ‘moderate Islam’ at the FII in Riyadh
Many other factors contributed to the horrible incident. According to witnesses, the main gate of the building was locked by the male guard, who was away at the moment the fire started. Firefighters reached the school, only to find that members of the religious police — who usually roamed outside girls’ schools to make sure that the girls and female staff were properly dressed and covered when arriving and leaving — were preventing anyone from fleeing or entering because the girls were uncovered. Precious time went by as girls suffocated, screamed for help and trampled over each other before the regular police were able to intervene and allow the firefighters to enter.
Firefighters reached the school, only to find that members of the religious police were preventing anyone from fleeing or entering because the girls were uncovered
The residential building-turned-school had been rented since 1990 and, like all such buildings, was not suitable for use as a school. The General Presidency for Girls’ Education rented the buildings that housed most girls’ schools at that time. Most of the buildings had small rooms, few bathrooms, narrow staircases, small, dusty playgrounds and no proper science labs, enough computers or art classes. Most importantly, they lacked safety measures. Unfortunately, rented buildings are still being used for schools to this day, although the numbers have decreased in recent years, and better evaluation and monitoring of their facilities is applied.
This tragic story brought attention to corruption, neglect, dilapidated facilities and the religious establishment in rare public criticism in the local media. Consequently, the government decided to dismantle the General Presidency for Girls’ Education — an autonomous government agency created when girls’ schools first opened in 1960 — and place responsibility for the administration of girls’ schools with the Ministry of Education, which also managed boys’ schools.
The religious police were, for so long, a feared presence in public places, not necessarily because they were “promoting virtue and preventing vice” as they saw it, but mostly because of their harassment, physical abuse and arbitrary arrests, especially of women for such trivial matters as not covering the face or not wearing the proper abaya. Even in the Great Mosque of Makkah, they would gawk at women and order them to cover their faces. They were a law unto themselves and imposed restrictions on every aspect of people’s lives that had nothing to do with religion, but rather their own narrow-minded interpretations and shows of power. They patrolled public areas to enforce dress codes, gender segregation and prayer breaks.
In 2016, responding to growing discontent over the violent behavior of the religious police, which caused over the years several incidents of deaths and injuries, the government curtailed some of their powers by disallowing them from detaining, pursuing or questioning suspects. They were required to act “kindly and gently” and only report suspicious activity to law enforcement officers for them to take the necessary action.
Today, they are rarely seen in public places. With the new rights gained by women, such as driving, the removal of gender segregation barriers, and the opening up of the country to entertainment — which were all things they objected to — little role is left for them except within their assigned mandate.
- Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1