JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The scene was chilling to watch: Three young girls, clad in their black abayas, dropping one by one from the third-floor window shrouded in billowing black smoke as their school went up in flames.
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The fierce fire that burned Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School in the Al-Safa District on November 19 left three teachers dead and 56 students and school personnel injured. It was reminiscent of the 2002 Makkah Intermediate School No. 31 fire that killed 15 girls after members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice forced the victims back into the burning building to retrieve their abayas, the long black cloak that covers women from head to toe.
Killed in the Jeddah blaze were teachers Souzan Al-Khaledi, Reem Al-Nahari and Ghadeer Katoua. Al-Khaledi was fatally injured after jumping from a third-floor window. Al-Nahari and Katoua died from smoke inhalation. Katoua was also deputy director of the primary school. Civil Defense investigators determined that five students playing with matches started the fire in the school’s basement.
This time the commission didn’t interfere in evacuating the building, but the issue of school safety, first raised after the 2002 Makkah blaze, remains today. It also points up the significant difference between the resources allocated to boys’ and girls’ education even as the kingdom has promised to improve the status of women. Two years ago, King Abdullah opened the first co-educational university and appointed Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez as deputy education minister, the first women to ever hold such a post.
According to teachers employed at Saudi girls schools, little has changed in nine years.
Like the Makkah School, Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School was in an aging
rented building not designed to accommodate school students, that
crowded some 750 students inside. The two schools lacked safety
equipment and adequate emergency exits, and its ground-floor windows
were barred, according to Civil Defense officials.
A teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is not
authorized to speak for the Ministry of Education, said there are
significant differences in safety features between boys and girls
“Most of the boys schools are specifically designed to be schools,” the
40-year-old teacher told The Media Line. “Boys schools are not rented,
and are all equipped with big yards for sports to play football and
basketball. They are surrounded by huge open areas.”
She added that classroom doors are usually left open and classes are often held outdoors.
Privacy concerns by the Ministry of Education require a different environment for female students, the teacher says.
“Girls schools are usually rented and redesigned for privacy,” the
teacher said. “Though they say there is a rule against it, the windows
usually have bars. The girls don’t have allocated spaces for sports, so
the yards are very small. It’s like a prison.”
A defining feature of virtually all Saudi public schools for girls is
the tightly controlled access to school grounds. Fathers routinely drop
off their children at the front gate, but rarely enter school grounds.
Mothers have greater access, but still must pass muster from the guard
at the gate to enter. Many Saudi girls schools feature high walls
surrounding the building with no other entries or exits other than the
main gate. Likewise, female colleges and universities have strict rules
that prohibit students from leaving campus without authorization.
Hannan Al-Harthy, a former student at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah,
told The Media Line that it is policy at virtually all female
universities to lock students in their dormitories for the weekend
unless they have permission to leave the university. Guards padlock all
exits and only male guardians pre-approved by the university can
retrieve the student to leave campus for a social visit.
“I never thought about the safety implications then, but in retrospect
we were locked in a big box cooking food, lighting candles – basically
playing with fire, if you will – without thinking of the consequences,”
An estimated 4.6 million Saudi children attend public primary through
secondary schools. About 2.2 million are girls, a jump from 33% of the
student population in 1975 to about 48% in 2009. Girls schools accounted
for about 48% of the Ministry of Education’s schools budge of 122
billion Saudi royals ($32.5 billion). Although the education ministry
has spent considerable money on infrastructure improvements, many girls
schools still lack the larger modern campuses and more comfortable
environment boys enjoy.
However, Arwah Aal Al-Asheikh, owner of Baraim Al-Watan, told the Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-Madinah
her school had up-to-date safety equipment and features, including
emergency exits, fire hoses and sensors. She said the building meets the
standards of an educational facility.
Yet Civil Defense fire investigators reported the emergency exits were
not used to evacuate teachers and students. They said safety training
appeared inadequate because the children panicked when they attempted to
board a rescue helicopter hovering over the roof the building.
Taif Saeed Al-Qahtani, 12, who jumped from Baraim Al-Watan’s third-floor window, told the Saudi newspaper Al-Arabyia
she remembers nothing after her leap to safety. Her father, Saeed
Al-Qahtani, said he learned from his daughter that school officials had
no proper crisis-management plan in place to allow school staff to
organize an “orderly and safe” evacuation of the building.
Perhaps most evident in skirting safety guidelines were bars placed on all first floor windows.
An investigation is underway to address the school’s safety issues.
Prince Khaled Al-Fasial, emir of the Makkah Governorate, appointed a
five-member panel consisting of representatives from the Saudi General
Investigation Department, the Makkah Governorate, Criminal
Investigations, the Saudi Electricity Company and Civil Defense to
conduct a probe of the causes of the fire and the events leading to the
Meanwhile, Abdullah Alami, an economist and women’s rights activist
based in the Eastern Province city of Dhahran, and Saudi journalist
Jamal Banoon in Jeddah launched the National Safety Campaign to address
commercial and educational building safety issues.
“School officials claim their facilities have all safety measures,
including emergency exits, in place as specified by the Civil Defense,”
Alami said. “Our task is to review defects related to electricity, roads
leading to the school buildings, emergency exits, fans, lighting and
wirings. We intended to look at distribution panels, iron fences on
windows, gates, gas cylinders, air conditions and refrigerators in