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As women across the globe celebrate International Women’s Day, female lawyers in Saudi Arabia are embracing a proposed legal change that will enable them to practise for the first time. But, as Bander Alnogaithan, founder of Riyadh firm The Law Office of Bander Alnogaithan, points, the road to professional equality will be a long one.
The Saudi legal system is often bureaucratic, arbitrary and inconsistent. Law has only been recognised as a profession in Saudi since 2001, when new legislation was issued. This law did not ban women from being lawyers - it’s just that the Ministry of Justice decided not to issue licenses for women. Currently male lawyers have so many problems with the courts that it makes doing their jobs difficult: a judge might refuse to recognise a lawyer and insist that the individual involved in the case should represent him or herself. This is improving with time, but not quickly enough. Another problem lawyers have is that no practising licenses have been issued for over a year due to bureaucratic reasons.
Unlike the British system a lawyer cannot represent a person without an official Power of Attorney (PoA) from the client. This must be verified by a notary. However, a PoA can be provided to anyone even if they don’t have a practising license or even a basic education. To date, women have been given PoAs and have represented other women in court. In fact there is no law that forbids women from doing this, instead it all comes down to the judge and whether he would agree to it or not.
The first women graduated from law school in Saudi Arabia three years ago. Some of these graduates have been hired by local law firms to provide legal advice within the firm. However, their legal status is questionable. A major hurdle for women lawyers in Saudi courts is the fact that, due to religious reasons, many judges will refuse to look into a woman’s face. As a result they don’t recognise their personal ID as a proof of identity because it shows their faces. And given that women are covered in black from head to toe in public, they insist that they provide two male relatives to verify their identity.
Given these hurdles, how will women lawyers work? Will they be expected to hire two relatives to walk with them all the time? Will the ministry issue photo IDs for them - and if so would the judges even accept it?
In short, the promise of women lawyers is little more than ink on paper. Any law permitting this is some way off and the detail is unclear. Considering that women don’t have many rights in Saudi Arabia - they can’t vote, drive or travel abroad without the permission of a male guardian - the last of their worries is probably the right to be lawyers.