Saudi authorities should conduct an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation of the March 11 fire at a girls' public intermediate school in Mecca that claimed the lives of at least fourteen students, Human Rights Watch said today. The tragedy has focused attention on the role of the religious police as well as the state agency responsible for the education of girls and women in the kingdom
Eyewitnesses, including civil defense officers, reported that several members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (mutawwa'in, in Arabic) interfered with rescue efforts because the fleeing students were not wearing the obligatory public attire (long black cloaks and head coverings) for Saudi girls and women. The mutawwa'in, a law-enforcement agency that has sought to ensure the application of the kingdom's strict gender segregation and dress code for women, has drawn criticism for abusive practices including harassment, physical abuse, and arbitrary arrest.
"Women and girls may have died unnecessarily because of extreme interpretations of the Islamic dress code," said Hanny Megally, Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "State authorities with direct and indirect responsibility for this tragedy must be held accountable."
There were 835 students and fifty-five women teachers in Intermediate School No. 31 when the blaze started at about 8:00 in the morning, according to Saudi press reports. Saudi newspapers suggested that the school, located in a rented building, was overcrowded, and may have lacked proper safety infrastructure and equipment, such as fire stairs and alarms.
The government's investigation should also examine unsafe conditions at the school, which is administered by the General Presidency for Girls' Education (GPGE), Human Rights Watch added.
Yesterday's edition of Arab News (Jeddah) cited a report prepared by Mecca's Civil Defense Department about the rescue effort at the school. The report noted that mutawwa'in were at the school's main gate and, "intentionally obstructed the efforts to evacuate the girls. This resulted in the increased number of casualties." The religious police reportedly tried to block the entry of Civil Defense officers into the building. "We told them that the situation was dangerous and it was not the time to discuss religious issues, but they refused and started shouting at us," Arab News quoted Civil Defense officers 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," Civil Defense officers were quoted as saying. The officers also said they saw three people beating girls who had evacuated the school without proper dress. A Saudi journalist told Human Rights Watch that the mutawwa'in at the scene also turned away parents and other residents who came to assist.
The tragedy has prompted Saudi journalists to call for greater openness on the part of the GPGE in response to inquiries from the media for information about its policies and practices. All aspects of state-financed education for girls in Saudi Arabia, including the renting of buildings for schools, is under the authority of the GPGE, an autonomous government agency long controlled by conservative clerics. "A free flow of information would. . . help the press to prepare an investigative report on other schools in the Kingdom where conditions might also endanger the lives of students and teachers," Deputy Editor-in-Chief Jamal A. Khashoggi wrote in yesterday's Arab News.
He urged that the GPGE provide information about fire safety in its schools for girls, including the number of fire extinguishers, the frequency of fire drills, as well as details about the contracts for the thousands of rented school premises in the kingdom, including provisions for installation of emergency exits and fire alarms.
The kingdom's intermediate public schools, which are segregated by gender, provide three years of education for children between the ages of twelve and fifteen, following a six-year program of elementary education.
Saudi Arabia is a state party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women.
Megally added that in the midst of this tragedy it was encouraging to see relatively open discussion of need for investigation in the traditionally very quiescent Saudi press.