The Saudi government approves the opening of a women’s law firm, the first of its kind in the patriarchal kingdom.
The online arm of international news channel RT has recently reported that the government of Saudi Arabia has, for the first time in its history, granted legal licenses to female attorneys, allowing them to practice law and open the first women’s law firm in the country. After receiving official approval in early 2014, the law firm run by Bayan Mahmoud Al Zahran, the first female Saudi lawyer, opened in the port city of Jeddah.
Speaking with Arab News, Zahran explained that her firm would focus on women’s rights issues and handle cases that fall outside of the expertise of her male counterparts. In a statement, Zahran noted,
I believe women lawyers can contribute a lot to the legal system. This law firm will make a difference in the history of court cases and female disputes in the Kingdom. I am very hopeful and thank everyone who supported me in taking this historical step. (“First Female Law Firm Opens in Saudi Arabia.”)
According to the RT article, Zahran and three other women – Jihan Qurban, Sarra Al Omari and Ameera Quqani – became the first in Saudi history to be granted the status of full legal representatives in October of 2013. Now able to call themselves attorneys at law, the four women embody the cessation of an official Saudi ban imposed on female graduates of law school, which limited their professional practice to legal consultancy only. As of late 2013, the requirements for obtaining a legal license are the same for men and women, consisting of a university degree in law and three additional years of legal training.
The article’s authors also point to some of the specific limitations imposed on contemporary Saudi women. According to RT, in Saudi Arabia
Every adult woman is required to have a close male relative as her ‘guardian’, who is authorized to make a number of decisions on a woman's behalf, including the right to travel, to start a business, and study at university. Saudi women are prohibited from driving, and are required to cover themselves in public, among other restrictions.
Contemporary Saudi law derives in large part from traditional Shari’a, the collected moral and religious codes of Islam. While men and women are tacitly recognized as equals before the law, Western commentators on the code have pointed out that Shari’a does not share certain underlying cultural assumptions about democracy, freedom of speech, and other individual rights generally regarded as fundamental by Western legal scholars. In practice, this has led to blatant distinctions between men’s and women’s day-to-day legal rights.
This can be seen in the Kingdom’s current de facto ban on women driving automobiles. A small but vocal minority of Saudi women chose to publicly disregard this ban through organized protest last October. Called the October 26th Women’s Driving Campaign, the initiative encourages women to photograph themselves while behind the steering wheel and to post these images on YouTube.
As reported by CNN, Sheikh Saleh Al-Loheidan, a prominent Saudi cleric, made statements in support of the driving ban. In an interview with Saudi news, Al-Loheidan opined,
If a woman drives a car, it could have a negative physiological impact…. Medical studies show that it would automatically affect a woman's ovaries and that it pushes the pelvis upward. We find that for women who continuously drive cars, their children are born with varying degrees of clinical problems. (“Saudi Cleric Warns Driving Could Damage Women's Ovaries.”)
The cleric’s opinions have been widely disparaged in social media.
This particular issue is only one among many of possible interest to the newly licensed female lawyers. Recognition of Zahran and her colleagues signifies a very significant step on the part of the Saudi government to extend full legal representation to all of its citizens, regardless of gender.