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October 7, 2013 No.
5471

For The First Time In Saudi Arabia, Women Licensed To Practice Law

Yesterday, October 6, 2013, after years in which the legal profession was closed to women in the kingdom, the Saudi Justice Ministry began issuing licenses to women lawyers. The first four women to receive their licenses were Bayan Zahran, Jihan Qurban, Sara Al-'Umari and Amira Quqani. [1]

Al-Quqani relates that she worked a few years at a Saudi law firm, but was denied the title of "lawyer" despite having completed her studies, and a limit was placed on the number of legal cases she was allowed to handle. Now that she has received her license, all these limitations will be removed, and she hopes to open her own firm as soon as possible, she says.[2]

Bayan Zahran, who submitted a request for a license already in April 2013, worked for three years as a legal advisor in social society organizations and legal consultancy firms. She emphasized that she and her colleagues had received their license by right, having earned all the necessary qualifications, and stated: "Now we can open [an independent law] practice, handle all claims and submit them to every [government] department and court, and we can dispense legal counsel." She added that the license constitutes recognition of her and her capabilities, and is identical to the license that a male lawyer receives, subjecting both of them to the same bylaws.[3]


Amira Al-Quqani's license to practice law (Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, October 7, 2013)


Bayan Zahran's license to practice law (Al-Hayat, London, October 7, 2013)


Attorney Bayan Zahran thanks King 'Abdallah, the Crown Prince and the Minister of Justice for integrating women lawyers in the judicial system (twitter.com/bayanzahran1, October 6, 2013)

It should be noted that a few months ago, in April 2013, the Saudi Justice Ministry registered female trainee lawyer, Arwa Talal Al-Hejaili. She explained that the Ministry has two lists: one of trainees and another of lawyers. Her recognition as a trainee paved the way for registering lawyers as well.[4]

This report presents some of the responses to the recent decision, as well as responses published in the past on the topic of licensing women lawyers, which has been a matter of public debate in the kingdom for many years.

Saudi Columnist: A Historic Day For Saudi Women

Saudi columnist Dr. 'Abd Al-Wahed Al-Hamid welcomed the Justice Ministry's decision to license women lawyers to practice law in the kingdom, calling it "historic." In an article published in the Saudi government daily Al- Jazirah, he congratulated the women lawyers, and argued that this step was very important because henceforth women would be able to represent other women in court, thereby providing them with better representation and increasing the clients' awareness of their rights.

He wrote: "The dream of Saudi women lawyers – to enter the legal field and practice the profession that they love and chose to study – has finally been realized. The ban on women practicing law is [only] one of the many puzzling [phenomena] that exist in Saudi society in everything pertaining to women. In [our] society we allow women to earn an education, from elementary school to doctoral studies, and this is their right as women and as citizens, not an act of charity. Yet, bizarrely, [even] a woman who studies, excels and obtains the highest marks encounters a bitter reality whereby she is treated as a minor, no matter how mature and educated she is.

"Over the past two years, the number of young women specializing in law has risen. Most of them have been destined [to join] the unemployment queues, just like many women in other fields – fields that our society needs but nevertheless prohibits women from working in. As a result, millions of foreign [workers] come to [Saudi Arabia] to do [jobs] that these accomplished young women are qualified to perform...

"There is an urgent need to introduce the Saudi women lawyers into the field and let them practice law, so they can defend those requiring their experience and knowledge. When the person in need [of their services] is a woman, this need becomes even more urgent. For a woman in our [society] is exposed to such injustice that she can be defended only a by another woman – one who specializes in laws and regulations and knows the loopholes that are generally used to deprive women of their rights.

"[Saudi] women face injustice in many domains of their lives: [they] are deprived of [their fair share] in inheritance, suffer domestic violence, are denied their rights as divorcees, and are [sometimes] banned from divorcing, among many [other] painful and shameful matters. [This, because] a woman has nobody to understand or protect her and her rights in a proper and just manner. She has no chance to speak out clearly about her personal matters and to present her case effectively in legal [forums], for she may be ignorant of [the law] and need someone to take her by the hand and guide her in order to derive [the full] benefit from the laws that are in her favor. Yesterday, the day the limitations on women lawyers were lifted, and four Saudi women were allowed to [start] practicing their profession, was a historic day in the Saudi woman's struggle to attain her rights. A thousand blessings upon our daughters and sisters. The path remains long, but [even] a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as the saying goes, and you [Saudi women] have already taken many exhausting and lengthy steps, not merely a single step."[5]

Women's Employment – A Topic Of Ongoing Public Debate In Saudi Arabia

It should be mentioned that the topics of women's employment and the fields of employment open and closed to them (including the legal profession) have been a matter of public debate in the kingdom for many years.[6] Saudi women lawyers have long protested the policy of banning them from practicing in the kingdom, and articles on this topic have been published in the Saudi press. Fatima Qabel, who earned a law degree from the University of Cairo over 30 years ago and was the first Saudi woman to qualify as a lawyer, appealed to the Justice Ministry for a license to practice law in Saudi Arabia, arguing that she had all the necessary qualifications and experience. In late 2005, she told the daily Al-Watan: "I refuse to [work] in some man's law firm. I want a license to run my own firm and practice law. [Saudi] law is very clear and precise in this regard. There is no law against a woman opening a firm... In addition, where are [women] law graduates [supposed to] do their internship?" Qabel stressed that the problem lay neither with shari'a nor with Saudi law, but with Saudi custom, and asked: "Why must we travel to other countries to gain experience [in our profession]? Why shouldn't we bring pride to our country and benefit our homeland with our knowledge, experience, and expertise? It is a mistake to say that [Saudi] women cannot yet be lawyers, and that law should remain an exclusively masculine domain..." Qabel also stressed the importance of establishing "special departments in Saudi courts aimed at helping women... so that they will not be exploited special departments for women in Saudi courts, to ensure that they are not exploited in any way."[7]

In April 2006, 'Abd Khazindar, a columnist for the Saudi dailies Al-Riyadh and 'Okaz, wrote in support of the Saudi women lawyers: "If there is a law preventing women [from practicing law in Saudi Arabia], is it based on tradition or on a bunch of excuses? As far as I know, a woman used to discuss matters with the Prophet [Muhammad], and even argued with him in defense of her rights... If a woman could present arguments to the Prophet, why shouldn't she argue a case in front of a judge? Not every woman is capable of defending herself [in court], since there are many laws and changing regulations. So why shouldn't [a woman] hire another woman, who is versed in the laws and regulations of the state, to defend her? A woman cannot open up her heart to a male [lawyer], but she can with [a woman lawyer]."[8]

In November 2011, Saudi women lawyers launched a Facebook and Twitter campaign titled "I Am A Lawyer," aimed at pressuring the Saudi Justice Ministry to license women lawyers and legal consultants and to provide them with jobs, and to allow the women lawyers to train women interns.[9] Bayan Zahran, who headed the campaign, said in April 2011, after she applied for a license to practice law: "The demand of Saudi Arabia's female law graduates to be issued a license to practice law will not be in vain. We have been demanding [this] for years... It is my right to receive a license and open a [law] firm under my own name."[10]


Facebook page of the "I Am A Lawyer" campaign

Endnotes:

[1] Alarabiya.net, October 6, 2013; Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), Al-Hayat (London), October 7, 2013.

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 7, 2013.

[3] Alarabiya.net, October 6, 2013; Al-Hayat, English.alarabiya.net, October 7, 2013.

[4] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), English.alarabiya.net, April 10, 2013.

[5] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), October 7, 2013.

[6] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 300, "Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Employment Opportunities for Women,"

November 17, 2006.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 23, 2005.

[8] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 23, 2006.

[9] Twitter.com/imalawyer1.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), April 11, 2013.