Reports from Arab News (Jeddah) suggest that the Saudi Arabian Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (mutawwa’) put the lives of hundreds of young girls and teachers at the Mecca Intermediate School No. 31 in danger on the morning of March 11 when a fire broke out at the school. Civil Defense officers claim that the mutawwa’ “intentionally obstructed the efforts to evacuate the girls. This resulted in the increased number of casualties.” At least fourteen girls died in the blaze. Mutawwa’ blocked the main entrance of the school and according to the Civil Defense, tried to force girls not wearing the abaya (a head-to-toe black shroud) to return to the school which was ablaze. Mutawwa’ also reportedly tried to beat rescue workers and beat girls escaping from the school without proper dress. “We told them that the situation was dangerous and it was not the time to discuss religious issues, but they refused and starting shouting at us,” said Civil Defense officers.
According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi newspapers also noted that the all-girls Intermediate School No. 31 was overcrowded and that the building did not have fire stairs or alarms. Over 500 students attended the school. Human Rights Watch is now calling for the Saudi government to launch an independent investigation into the fire, focusing on the unsafe conditions at the school Ð run by the General Presidency for Girls’ Education (GPGE), a government agency controlled by clerics Ð as well as the role of the mutawwa’ in the tragedy. Arab News is also calling on the GPGE to disclose information about its policies regarding safety to “help the press prepare an investigative report on other schools in the Kingdom where conditions might also endanger the lives of students and teachers,” said Deputy Editor-in-Chief Jama Khashoggi.