Surviving the Debate
The struggle of Saudi women for new social, political, and professional rights is often stalled in tired political debate. Those opposed to reforms reinforce narrow religious and cultural views while supporters focus on liberal freedoms. This polarization forces society to choose between religion and liberty, which is a misleading fallacy. Even though women are often excluded from these discussions, they are the ones who lose because the rights they claim get lost in the debate.
Saudi women in the legal profession have achieved rapid advances by avoiding the sublimation of their cause under a conservative or liberal agenda. Both liberal and conservative women have advocated their right to practice law. Instead of presenting this right in light of their personal religious or cultural beliefs, they have framed it as an entitlement that does not have to interfere with these beliefs. More importantly, they have promoted their approach to this issue among other members of the society and the institutions most closely involved in the matter.
Use of Available Channels
Women in the legal profession have not only advocated their right to practice law, they have exercised it. The enormous number of lawsuits filed by women exposed a need for women lawyers in the conservative Saudi society, where there is a general preference for women to discuss personal issues with other women. Consequently, Saudi women were cautiously granted the permission to study law through a decision by the Council of Higher Education. Saudi law schools thus began graduating women in 2008, yet women were not allowed to practice until 2013, when the Ministry of Justice issued practicing licenses for women for the first time.
Still, between 2008 and 2013, women law graduates did not wait idly by; instead, they had their own strategies for involvement in the legal profession. Many worked in law firms as legal consultants as they were not allowed to litigate cases. Others represented clients under wakalah, a contract of agency that allows one to work and provide services on behalf of others. In both situations, women were not recognized as lawyers, which affected their job opportunities and benefits as law firms could not fully rely upon them due to their restricted capacity to represent clients in court and before other government institutions.
These restrictions pushed some women to channel their efforts into public service. These initiatives have served to raise public awareness where needed: in personal status cases, consumer rights, and medical malpractice. Young Lawyers United, which was founded by an all-women team, has focused on increasing the competence of young lawyers by organizing workshops and conferences in law-related subjects. Other women’s groups like Almawaddah have provided pro bono legal consultation in personal status cases. Through these types of activities, women have highlighted their skills and professionalism. Furthermore, they have built up a professional network of law students and professors, lawyers, and judges. These constituencies then advocated for women in the profession, hastening their right to practice law.
This strategy of demonstrating legal competence is now bearing fruit. In less than four years, more than 50 women have been registered by the Ministry of Justice as licensed lawyers, and 639 others astrainee lawyers, to be licensed after three years of work experience. At least four Saudi women are running their own law offices.
Before women were officially allowed into the legal profession, statements by officials, lawyers, and other members of society suggested restricting their practice to family and personal status law including custody, alimony, and inheritance cases, or to representing only female clients. But women have demonstrated that they can practice in all areas of the law including personal status, contracts, arbitration, corporate, labor disputes, real property, and intellectual property, representing both men and women. A couple of Saudi women in the legal profession are regional and international arbitrators, and there are hundreds of women completing their master’s degrees abroad specializing in different areas of law.
Even though Saudi women have demonstrated their aptitude in the legal profession, their participation is still limited by other legal restraints. The Ministry of Labor restricts the private sector’s employment of women, requiring businesses to maintain gender segregation. Most law offices and firms do not have adequate resources to have separate sections for men and women, and consequently, the majority of law offices do not hire women. For the labor market and the justice system to fully benefit from women’s participation in the legal profession, such restrictions should be reconsidered.
Women lawyers have not only contributed to overcoming problems in the justice system, they have also worked to deal with the root causes of some of these problems. Personal status cases constitute 60 percent of the lawsuits filed in Saudi courts. Women lawyers have been contributing to speeding up the process of reviewing these cases, which used to suffer from critical delays due to the lack of legal representation for the lawsuits’ parties. By raising awareness and providing pro bono legal consultation, women lawyers have contributed to the early settlement of legal disputes, diminishing the number of lawsuits filed before courts. By dealing directly with women clients and gaining valuable legal education and experience, women lawyers will develop a deeper understanding of the legal protections provided to women under Saudi law, and hopefully contribute to their improvement.
Author: Reham Jambi