Women lawyers to be allowed in Saudi courts
Women lawyers in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to argue cases in court from November.
A directive has been sent from the experts committee of the Council of Ministers to the Justice Ministry, setting out the conditions that will govern the inclusion of women.
Until now, only men have been allowed to represent clients in court.
The new directive states that women who have obtained a law degree and have three years experience working in a lawyers office can apply for a license to practice in court.
The Justice Ministry expects the new policy to take effect in early November, following the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, and experts estimate that around three hundred women will apply to the ministry for a license in the first instance.
Currently, female lawyers function in the capacity of civilian representatives for their clients, and not as attorneys-at-law.
They are not allowed to appear as official representatives in court.
As they are not allowed to hold law licenses, they also cannot open their own law firms.
According to reports, initial discussions mooted the idea of restricting women to dealing with limited cases such as divorce and family matters and working in closed offices.
However, the experts committee have apparently made no distinction on the basis of gender and will allow women to represent both male and female clients.
It is an issue which has been debated for many years in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and just last year female law graduates started a campaign on social networking sites called ‘I am a female lawyer’.
The campaign focused on the issue of female law graduates spending years studying and gaining top degrees, only to be prevented from practising in their own country.
An outcome of the campaign was to highlight the issue of women feeling uncomfortable dealing with male lawyers in personal matters or where patriarchy may prevent a sympathetic representation.
Hatoun Al Fassi, women’s rights activist and assistant professor at a Saudi University, expressed frustration at the endless delays that have surrounded the issue.
She said: “Every day, I see it closer than the day earlier. At every stage, the ceiling of expectations becomes higher. I believe the delay [of the issue] like many other things is not justified.”
Perhaps this is an astute observation considering the Saudi Government have yet to make an official statement on the approval of the expert committee’s recommendations.
She also believes that courts, which serve both men and women, can’t be composed of men only and that the presence of qualified women in the courtrooms will benefit both female lawyers and female clients.
Nevertheless, she does have reservations about the scope of clients and cases for women lawyers within the new policy, believing that the Justice Ministry will be expect female lawyers to defend only female clients.
However the statutes are borne out, the announcement is being hailed as a radical step forward for women in a kingdom which is highly conservative when it comes to gender segregation, particularly in public places and in relation to the provision of goods and services.
Women are still not allowed to drive and they as yet have no vote.
So, what is happening here is not gender parity. Far from it.
But as Hatoun Al Fassi says, it is a ‘major step’ for women in Saudi Arabia.
Let’s hope it’s one of many.