Middle school in Makkah

WASHINGTON DC – 15 girls died at their middle school in Makkah Monday after religious police prevented the fire department and citizens from entering the building to free them from the fire inside.

Al-Nadwah Daily quoted one survivor as saying that while the girls were dying inside the metal locked gates of the school, the Civil Defense and the religious police kept arguing outside over their respective jurisdiction. Some passersby rushed to the scene carrying water buckets only to be stopped by religious police, who did not want males to enter the school. The official policy is to keep the doors of female schools locked during business hour.

The school is a rented three-story house with a single entrance and 820 students from the poor and over-crowded Al-Hindawaya neighborhood.  Due to widespread corruption in the department, up to 60% of girls’ schools and least 62% of boys’ schools in Saudi Arabia are based in rented homes and apartments.

Al-Nadwah criticized the Director of Girls’ Education in Makkah Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Aqla. Al-Aqla was accused of smashing the camera of al-Nadwah’s photographer scene to prevent him from taking pictures, citing orders from higher authorities. “We do not know who gave Dr. Al-Aqla these orders to assault the photographer of a newspaper, smash his camera and take away his films in such loutish behavior,” al-Nadwah said.

Government regulations prevent female school administrators from contacting fire department or police directly. In case of emergency, they must call male officials who will contact safety authorities on their behalf.

Many Saudis expressed their anger and asked for the immediate resignation of an education official, including its head Dr. Ali Al-Morshed, a Wahhabi cleric who didn’t yet express his regrets or apology for the tragedy.

In a statement to the Arab press Tuesday, the Saudi Institute called for the dismissal of Al-Morshed and the immediate ending the use of rented homes and apartments as schools. In addition, many local columnists criticized the performance of officials involved in the tragedy.

Girls’ education is controlled by religious clerics who opposed it until King Faisal allowed them its control in 1962.