CLASSES HAD already begun when the fire broke out at Intermediate School Nr. 81, and all-girls middle school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest city. As the flames and smoke spread, panicked students fled for the exits.

Outside, firemen assembled quickly, preparing to pull the girls to safety. But they never did: Saudi Arabia’s religious police stepped between the students and their rescuers, beating the girls — who were not wearing their head scarves or abayas — back into the inferno.

On that day in March 2002, 15 schoolgirls were trampled or suffocated to death in what is perhaps the most dramatic recent example of the clash between religion and humanitarian aid. In many Islamic countries, custom dictates that a woman or girl cannot be viewed or touched by a man outside the immediate family, even if that man is a doctor — or a rescue worker trying to save her life. So in times of crisis, when a woman is alone and in need of serious help, there’s only one place to turn. Another woman.