Around three years has passed since Saudi women were allowed to become certified lawyers for the first time. I had previously been lecturing at Law Departments in Saudi Universities and my bright, young, female students used to ask me, with their eyes open wide: “When do you think we can be practitioners and defend our clients in court?” I am pleased that this is all from the past. An historical first step was made by the late Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdu Aziz Al-Saud, to change the face of the legal practice in Saudi Arabia forever – to make it more feminine!
The silent march followed.
By December 2015, the number of trainee female lawyers reached 393, according to the Saudi Ministry of Justice. This is an achievement by itself. There are six law departments in Saudi Arabia teaching Bachelors in law for women, but they were all established during the last decade meaning the number of female graduates, let alone those who would like to pursue a career as private practitioners, is limited. However, we can see progress already; in three years, one tenth of the trainees are women. I am proud that my colleague, Lujain Al Yosef, is the newest addition to the list.
A smaller number of fully licensed female lawyers are registered. Some of them had already graduated from foreign universities some time ago and could only previously work in other jobs, or as in-house lawyers. Fatima Qabel, a licensed lawyer from Jeddah city, has a familiar story. After working as an in-house lawyer for many years after graduation, while waiting for her application to practice law to be approved, she is now able to pursue her dream by working as an advocate and mediator.
The most significant part of the march takes place in courts.
Historically, women only appeared in Saudi courts as witnesses or litigant parties. Judges, clerks and lawyers were all men. Saudi Arabia is culturally conservative and normally men and women socialize and work separately. Thus, it was assumed that all of this would intimidate female lawyers. It did not. Gradually, like the beginning of the rain in spring, a few female lawyers started to present their clients in court, which encouraged others to do the same. The number has been steadily on the increase since. It is now very rare to enter the courts in Saudi Arabia and not see some female lawyers, particularly in labor committees, the commercial courts and family hearings.
The march of Saudi female lawyers is expected to continue.
A wind of change in the country is yielding positive results for women. About the same time legal practice was permitted to women, the Shura Council Law (essentially an appointed senate house and the legislative body of the country) was amended to mandate that at least 20% of the 150 Shura members must be women. Another significant development was allowing women for the first time to elect or be elected to municipality councils, which is considered a political position.
Saudi female lawyers are not alone on the march.
Along with women from other sectors, they are proving that achievements can be obtained in an evolutionary manner, rather than the revolutionary way.
By: Dr. Nadia Al-Anani
El-Enezee in Association with Holman Fenwick Willan LLP
This article represents the view of the author alone.