2002 Mecca girls' school fire
Location of Makkah Region in Saudi Arabia
|Date||11 March 2002|
|Location||Mecca, Makkah Region, Saudi Arabia|
On March 11, 2002, a fire at a girls' school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia killed fifteen people, all young girls. The event was especially notable due to complaints that Saudi Arabia's "religious police" (aka the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) stopped schoolgirls from leaving the burning building and hindered rescue workers because the girls were not wearing correct Islamic dress. As Hanny Megally, Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch put it, "Women and girls may have died unnecessarily because of extreme interpretations of the Islamic dress code. State authorities with direct and indirect responsibility for this tragedy must be held accountable."
Fire and controversy
As a result of the fire and ensuing rush to escape, 15 young girls died, and more than 50 were injured. Nine of the dead girls were Saudis; the rest were from Chad, Egypt, Guinea, Niger, and Nigeria. The majority of the deaths occurred when a staircase collapsed as the girls fled the building. The residential property upon which the school was built, being overcrowded with 800 pupils, was unsuitable. In addition, the building may have lacked proper safety infrastructure and equipment, such as fire stairs and alarms.
According to at least two reports, members of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), also known as Mutaween, would not allow the girls to escape or to be saved from the fire because they were "not properly covered", and the mutaween did not want physical contact to take place between the girls and the civil defense forces for fear of sexual enticement, and variously that the girls were locked in by the police, or forced back into the building. Civil Defense stated that the fire had extinguished itself before they arrived on the scene. CPVPV officers did appear to object to Civil Defense workers going into the building - Human Rights Watch quoted a Civil Defense officer as saying,
"Whenever the girls got out through the main gate, these people forced them to return via another. Instead of extending a helping hand for the rescue work, they were using their hands to beat us."
The CPVPV denied the charges of beating or locking the gates but the incident and the accounts of witnesses were reported in Saudi newspapers such as the Saudi Gazette and Al-Iqtisaddiyya. The result was a very rare public criticism of the group.
Also criticized was the General Presidency for Girls' Education (GPGE), which administers girl's schools in Saudi Arabia".
An inquiry was launched by the Saudi government in wake of the deaths. The investigation was led by Abdul Majeed, the governor of Mecca. The Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, promised that those responsible for the deaths would be held accountable. Nayef, at the time, stated that the deaths did not happen as a result of the fire, but rather the stampede caused by the panic. He acknowledged the presence of two mutaween and that they went there to prevent "mistreatment" of the girls. He asserted that they did not interfere with the rescue efforts and only arrived after everyone had left the building.
On March 25, the inquiry concluded that while the fire had been caused by a stray cigarette, the religious educational authorities responsible for the school had neglected the safety of the pupils. The inquiry found that the clerics had ignored warnings that overcrowding of the school could cause a fatal stampede. It also found that there was a lack of fire extinguishers and alarms in the building. Accordingly, the cleric in charge of the school was fired, and his office was merged with the Ministry of Education. The report dismissed allegations that the mutaween (of CPVPV) had prevented the girls from fleeing or made the death toll worse.
Many newspapers welcomed the merger of the agency responsible for girls' education with the Ministry of Education. Previously, the agencies had been separate and girls' education had been in the hands of the religious establishment. The newspapers saw the merger as a step towards "reform".
In the outrage over the deaths that followed, Crown Prince Abdullah removed girls' schools from the administration of the "General Presidency for Girls' Education" -- an "autonomous government agency long controlled by conservative clerics" -- and put it under the Ministry of Education, which already controlled boys' schools. In 1960, when girls' schools were first created in Saudi Arabia, they were put under the control of a separate administration dominated by conservatives as "a compromise to calm public opposition to allowing (not requiring) girls to attend school".
- Saudi police 'stopped' fire rescue. BBC News. 15 March, 2002
- "Saudi Arabia: Religious Police Role in School Fire Criticized". Human Rights Watch. March 15, 2002.
- "Cleric sacked over Saudi school fire". BBC News. 25 March 2002. Retrieved 2009-12-31.
- Shock turns to outrage over school fire tragedy. Kingdom Arab News. 13 March 2002
- Christopher Dickey; Rod Nordland (July 21, 2002). "The Fire That Won't Die Out". Newsweek. Retrieved May 19, 2012.
- Abou el Fadl, Khaled, The Great Theft, (2005), pp. 250-2
- Naif denies commission men prevented rescuers, Arab News, March 18, 2002.
- House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 152.
Girls' schools, at their creation in the 1960s, had been put under the control of the General Presidency for Girls' Education, an autonomous government agency controlled by conservative clerics, as a compromise to calm public opposition to allowing (not requiring) girls to attend school.
- Arab News. 12 March 2002, 14 girls die in Makkah School Stampede
- Arab News. 13 March 2002, Heads must roll say press
- Arab News. 13 March 2002, Shock turns to outrage over school fire tragedy
- Arab News. 14 March 2002, School Guard refutes allegations
- Arab News. 16 March 2002, Abdullah vows action to prevent repeat of Makkah School Tragedy
- Arab News. 18 March 2002, Naif denies commission men prevented rescuers
- Human Rights Watch. Saudi Arabia: Religious Police Role in School Fire Criticized
- BBC News. 15 March 2002, Saudi police 'stopped' fire rescue
- BBC News. 25 March 2002, Cleric sacked over Saudi school fire
- Newsweek 21 July 2002 The Fire That Won't Die Out