On March 11, 2002, 15 young girls were left to die in a fire at their school in Mecca. They could have escaped the fire but were not allowed to flee the burning building as they were not wearing proper ‘Islamic’ clothes. Saudi Arabia’s Religious Police prevented the Civil Defense Officers from entering the school to save the girls and stopped the girls from coming out of the building.
The incident not only shocked the country but sparked outrage across the world. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as the Religious Police, was established in 1940. It was a Saudi Arabian government body that took radical shape in 1979 in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by extremists.
The incident was the tipping point that widened the gap between the Religious Police or Hayaa and the people of Saudi Arabia. Since the incident, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has been gradually changing to a more moderate form of Islam as a part of Vision 2030 laid down by the Saudi administration.
The school fire and role of Religious Police in death of 15 girls
On March 11, 2002, a fire broke down at Intermediate School No 31 of Macca. Reportedly, it was caused by an unattended cigarette in a room located on the top floor, but some theories suggest it was caused due to an electric short circuit. The fire spread quickly across the three-storey building. There was a narrow staircase in the building to escape. The panicked students rushed towards the staircase that collapsed.
At the time of the incident, there were around 800 students and 50 teachers in the school. The building was an over-crowded rented property. During the investigation into the fire, the agencies found there were iron bars on the windows, making them impossible for anyone to use for escape. The building lacked alarms, emergency stairs or escape routes and fire extinguishers. In case of a disaster, like the one that happened in March 2002, the lack of safety measures had put everyone at risk.
Reports suggest that it was a residential building that was turned into a school in 1990. The building had small rooms, few washrooms and narrow staircases. There were no proper arrangements for students in the school. General Presidency for Girls’ Education was managing the school. When the incident happened, the male guard, who had locked the main door, was not present around the building.
By the time firefighters reached the school, the members of Religious Police were already present at the building. During that time, the members of Religious Police often roamed around the girls’ schools to “ensure” they wore proper Islamic dress. While the innocent girls and teachers were suffocating and screaming for help, the members of the Religious Police prevented rescuers from entering the building. They also stopped the victims from escaping the building.
The reason behind such an inhumane act was that the girls were not wearing abayas and headscarves or hijab. According to the al-Eqtisadiah daily, a witness saw the members of Religious Police allegedly beating the girls who tried to escape the building. They also stopped men from approaching women as it was “sinful to approach the girls.” The Father of one of the deceased girls alleged that the guard of the school refused to open the main gate of the school.
The rescuers lost precious time to save the girls who trampled over each other while trying to escape. By the time regular police arrived and intervened to let the firefighters enter the building, 15 students were already dead, and over 50 were injured.
The action of the Religious Police sparked outrage across the country and on the international platform. In the investigation, the government agencies found the educational authorities maintaining the school was responsible for incompetent fire safety measures in the building. Though there were eyewitnesses and Civil Defense Officers who saw Religious Police preventing rescuers from entering the building, their role in the death of 15 students was dismissed by the government.
The outrage, however, forced the Saudi government to scrape the General Presidency for Girls’ Education. The autonomous government agency that was created in 1960 and managed by conservative clerics was replaced by the Ministry of Education. Notably, boys’ schools were already under the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia.
The downfall of Religious Police
Religious Police is hardly seen in public places in current times. Once feared by most of the public, Religious Police was infamous for detaining, beating up and assaulting those who did not follow Islamic Laws, especially women. They used to patrol public areas to enforce dress codes. They would not allow men and women to be at the same place.
After the 2002 incident, they slowly lost their powers, and by 2016, the government stripped them off most authority. They could not detain, pursue or question any “suspect”. As per the regulations, they were asked to act kindly and gently with the public. They could only report the incident to law enforcement officers and not take any action against anyone.
The Saudi administration has removed many restrictions on women in recent years, such as they can now drive alone, gender segregation is no longer required and more and mandatory burqa orders have been removed, as long as women wear ‘decent’ attires. The country is now moving towards becoming a more open society, but the black spots like the incident of March 2002 would keep haunting them for a long time.