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SAUDI ARABIA: Women lawyers may soon be allowed in courtrooms

February 23, 2010 |  9:57 am

Dira_Square

For years, Saudi women seeking justice through the courts had to rely on male lawyers to argue their cases, sometimes divulging sensitive information about their marriages and family lives to men they hardly knew.

But if the government backs a new law soon to be proposed by the ministry of justice, Saudis could be free to hire women lawyers to represent them in court, which advocates say would improve women's access to quality legal counsel and create more opportunities for women seeking careers in law.

Justice Minister Mohammad Al Issa's announcement Saturday that the ministry intends to issue a new draft law that would allow women lawyers to represent other women in personal status cases pertaining to divorce, alimony and child custody. The new decree would also allow women to perform basic procedures with notaries, such as registering and mortgaging property and authorizing corporate sponsorships and gifts, the English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News reported.

Two prominent Saudi women lawyers told a Saudi newspaper they welcomed the proposed draft law, and  hoped it would open the door to even more reforms.

"We are satisfied to start with personal status cases, but we hope to eventually work on all cases,” Saaed Al Shamri told the Saudi newspaper Al Madina, noting that women make up about 70% of those processed through the courts.

The head of the Volunteer Committee for Women's Legal Support in Jedda, Byan Al Zahran, said that the new draft law addresses “a great social need” among women facing the Islamic justice system. She expressed hope the new law would also offer better protection for women’s financial rights such as  inheritance.

It is not technically illegal for women lawyers to argue in court--Zahran and Shamri were two of three women granted special licenses to do so last June. Rather, the new law seems intended to set a precedent that would encourage women's participation in the legal system.

Still, many are hopeful that the minister's comments indicate a new attitude in the government that could open the door for women in other professions.

"This is an important period in the history of the Kingdom," Rashed Mohammad Al Fawzan wrote in the Saudi daily Al Riyadh on Sunday. "Today we have Saudi women lawyers, and tomorrow women accountants, engineers, and heads of finance."

--Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Justice in Riyadh sits near Dira Square, nicknamed "chop-chop square" by some expats because public executions take place there. Credit: Tomas Kriha via Wikipedia / CC

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