March 16, 2002
SAUDI Arabia’s religious police are reported to have forced schoolgirls back into
a blazing building because they were not wearing Islamic headscarves and black robes.
Saudi newspapers said scuffles broke out between firemen and members of the
Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice who tried to
keep the girls inside a burning school in Mecca. Fifteen girls were killed as they
stampeded to escape from the blazing building in the Muslim holy city. Saudi
media and families of the victims have been angry over the deaths of the girls in
the fire that gutted the school.
The resulting public criticism of the religious police, or mutaween, is highly unusual.
The English-language Saudi Gazette, in a front-page report yesterday quoted
witnesses as saying that members of the religious police stopped men who tried
to help the girls escape from the building, saying: “It is sinful to approach them.”
A civil defence officer told an Arabic-language newspaper, al-Eqtisadiah, that he
saw three members of the religious police “beating young girls to prevent them
from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya”.
He added: “We told them that the situation was very critical and did not
allow for such behaviour. But they shouted at us and refused to move away
from the gates.”
The father of one of the dead girls alleged that the school watchman refused to
open the gate to let the girls out.
“Lives could have been saved had they not been stopped by members of
the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,” the Saudi
The much-feared mutaween roam the streets of the conservative kingdom
wielding sticks to enforce dress codes and sex segregation and to ensure that
Islamic prayers are performed on time.
Those who refuse to obey the orders of the religious police are usually
beaten and sometimes jailed.