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Saudi Women May Soon Practice Law: A New Directive Expands Women’s Roles In Courts

Women attorneys in Saudi Arabia may soon be allowed to practice law and argue cases in court. This opportunity opens new doors for attorneys and women throughout the country but also highlights some of the legal challenges facing women.

With the promise of a new law, women in Saudi Arabia may be able to take part in the legal system in new ways.  Dramatic new access to the courts could allow women to redefine cultural traditions and empower more than just their clients.  However, with this new potential comes a reminder of the deep-rooted oppression Saudi women still face in many aspects of their lives.  Women may now be able to work from the inside to change the structure of a legal system that has traditionally ignored and confined them.  But can a woman succeed in a legal community where she cannot even exist without a male guardian?  Can she open a law firm when she is not allowed to drive? These are just two of the myriad issues likely to confront Saudi women as they test the limits of their new privileges and try to establish themselves as effective advocates for their clients.

Dramatic new access to the courts could allow women to redefine cultural traditions and empower more than just their clients.
A new directive from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Justice has announced that female lawyers will soon be able to apply for licenses to practice law.1  When the reform was first mentioned in 2010, it seemed to restrict women to representing only female clients in personal status cases, such as divorce and family disputes.2  In contrast, the newest version of the directive seems to put women on equal footing with men in the legal field, allowing them to meet with clients, file legal documents, and present their cases in courts.3

Traditional notions about women’s role in society have historically prevented Saudi women from practicing law.  The country is deeply religious, and legal authority comes first and foremost from God, through the Quran.4  Yet only about three percent of the Quran has legal significance, most of which relates to family law and inheritance.5  In practice, cultural traditions called sunna work alongside the Quran to establish legal norms.6  Sunna translates to “habitual practice” and refers to the practices of the Prophet, or his approval of traditions.7  Sunna can be analogized to English common law in the sense that it dictates trends in the legal community.  But unlike judges in a common law system, who build upon the decisions of previous cases, judges in Saudi Arabia are religious scholars unbound by precedent.  Because Saudis believe judges channel the will of God, adherence to precedent would violate the proper legal reasoning.8  Women face  a unique challenge in expanding their role in the legal system because it is not controlled by any particular legal doctrine, but instead by a complicated web of legal and religious understandings.

While the new directive is a promising new step, women in Saudi Arabia continue to face a massive amount of oppression.
Although Saudi Arabia’s Code of Law and Practice provides no explicit provisions against women practicing law or arguing cases in the courtroom, the legal customs derived from sunna have restricted women in a variety of ways.9 Women are required to have male legal guardians (their closet male relative) with whom they must consult in order to travel, work, attend school or even have surgery.10 This guardianship practice creates a major obstacle for women in the courts. Some courts have required that women’s guardians speak on their behalf, others have deemed women’s testimony as less weighty than a male counterparts merely on the basis of sex.11 Criminal courts generally refuse to hear women’s testimony, even if the woman was the victim of the crime in question.12

Allowing women to present oral arguments in court could greatly increase their presence in the legal system and change how judges handle women as parties to disputes.  Female lawyers, for example, might increase the credibility afforded testimony by women.  Likewise, female litigants may feel more comfortable discussing the intimate details of a case with a female advocate, providing courts with a more complete picture of the dispute.13  New female attorneys in Saudi Arabia might leverage this opportunity to advocate not only for their clients, but for women’s overall participation in the Saudi legal process.

While the new directive is a promising new step, women in Saudi Arabia continue to face a massive amount of oppression. The directive does not, for example, identify whether male guardians will still be required to accompany women in the courtroom.14  Also, because women must still keep their face covered, courts must develop systems to verify their identities.15  Women who are not allowed to drive will face daily difficulties, and female lawyers will likely face a wide variety of tradition-based discrimination.

The female lawyers of Saudi Arabia have a challenge in front of them. They have to show that they are as skilled and capable as their male counterparts while functioning in a legal system that has repeatedly silenced their voices. More than ever, these new opportunities in the legal field highlight the importance of women’s participation in the constant evolution of law, culture, and customs.  Thankfully, no one is more qualified to weave together tradition and religion, with a new sense of identity and freedom, than these women who have worked in limited capacities in the legal community.  After years of waiting for their chance to step into court they can finally make their voices heard.

 


  1. Elizabeth Dickinson, Saudi’s Case for Women Lawyers is Paying Off, The National (Oct. 24, 2012), http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/saudis-case-for-women-lawyers-is-paying-off#full.
  2. Meris Lutz, Saudi Arabia: Women Lawyers May Soon Be Allowed In Court Rooms, Los Angeles Times (Feb. 23, 2010), http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2010/02/saudi-arabia-new-law-allows-women-lawyers-.html.
  3. Id.
  4. Joseph L. Brand, Aspects of Saudi Arabian Law and Practice, 9 B.C. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 1, 4 (1986), available at http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/iclr/vol9/iss1/2.
  5. Id.
  6. Id.
  7. Id.
  8. Cindy G. Buys and Stephanie Macuiba, Is Reform a Reality for Women in Saudi Arabia?, The Catalyst (ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law), June 2012, https://www.isba.org/committees/women/newsletter/2012/06.
  9. Saudi Arabia, The Code of Law Practice, (2011), available at http://www.saudiembassy.net/about/country-information/laws/CodePractice01.aspx.
  10. Human Rights Watch, Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship and Sex Segregation in Saudi Arabia (2008), 28, available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/04/19/perpetual-minors-0.
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. Lutz, supra note 2.
  14. Dickinson, supra note 1.
  15. Id.