They Died for Lack of a Head Scarf

By Mona Eltahawy

Tuesday, March 19, 2002; Page A21

The fire was a tragedy that could have struck anywhere. Fifteen girls between ages 13 and 17 were trampled to death and 52 others were hurt when a blaze swept through their school.

Parents and journalists angrily demanded the resignation of education officials they accused of incompetence and corruption. There was plenty to be angry about. Some 800 schoolgirls were crammed into a building designed for only 250. The main gate to the school was locked. There were no emergency exits, no fire alarms and no fire extinguishers in the building.

But another far more sinister detail in this particular tragedy shows that it could not have happened anywhere but Saudi Arabia.

Firefighters told the Saudi press that morality police forced girls to stay inside the burning building because they were not wearing the head scarves and black cloaks known as abayas that women must wear in public in that kingdom. One Saudi paper said the morality police stopped men who tried to help the girls escape the building, saying, "It is sinful to approach them."

Girls died because zealots at the gate would rather see them burn than appear in public dressed inappropriately.

Who are these men who would choose a scarf and an abaya over a girl's life? The morality police, or mutawwai'in as they are known in Arabic, are officers of the Kafkaesque-sounding Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The State Department describes the committee in its annual human rights report as a "semiautonomous agency that enforces adherence to Islamic norms by monitoring public behavior."

What kind of virtue is it to allow girls to die in a fire because of what they were not wearing? Whose Islam is it that allows these men to dilute the faith I and millions of others cherish for its teachings of compassion and justice to nothing more than a dress code and sexual segregation? I grew up learning God is merciful and that faith was based on choice -- you could not force actions on anyone in the name of religion.

For anyone who has not been to Saudi Arabia, the best way to describe the mutawwai'in is as the godfathers of the Taliban. It is the ideology of the mutawwai'in -- based on the puritanical Wahabi school of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia -- that gave birth to the Taliban and the misery they unleashed on the people of Afghanistan.

The only difference is that the Taliban ran a lawless country for a few years until the military might of the United States brought its rule to an end as punishment for its support of a terrorist network.

Where are the international outcries over the mutawwai'in's treatment of women in Saudi Arabia? Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both demanded investigations into the mutawwai'in's reported hampering of rescue efforts. But many reports published by both watchdogs, as well as those issued annually by the State Department that highlight the fear and intimidation that surround the mutawwai'in, have fallen on deaf ears in the past.

The mutawwai'in have the power to detain for up to 24 hours anyone they believe has committed a "crime of vice." When I lived in Saudi Arabia for six years as a teenager, I watched with dismay as they distilled the teachings of Islam into rudimentary lessons in terrorizing a populace.

One day, in a mall, I didn't see the morality police coming. I usually pulled on a scarf when I saw them approach.

"Why isn't your daughter covered properly?" the mutawwa asked. "Don't you know that it is your duty as a Muslim father to make sure your daughter is properly covered?"

"My daughter is an adult and you know you cannot force your adult children to do anything," my father bravely replied. "You can only advise."

Angered by my father's attempt to debate him, the mutawwa turned to look at my brother who at the time wore a popular short-back-and-sides haircut. "And why does your son cut his hair like the infidels?" the mutawwa shot back.

From this point on the conversation descended into a surreal battle of wills that ended with the mutawwa ordering the policemen around him to take my father and brother into custody. One of the policemen talked him out of it.

To its credit, the Saudi press has roundly condemned the mutawwai'in in the aftermath of the fire. Such public criticism of the morality police was previously unheard of.

Crown Prince Abdullah has vowed to bring to justice anyone found responsible for the fire. In the kingdom, the prince has a reputation for honesty and fairness. That reputation can only be enhanced if his calls for justice extend to the feared mutawwai'in. Bringing to justice anyone who obstructs rescue efforts is the true virtue.

The writer reported from the Middle East before moving to the United States.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company