Saudi first female lawyer faces "huge obstacles" - HRW

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 12 Apr 2013 17:54 GMT
Veiled Saudi women take photos of their children during a ceremony to celebrate Saudi Arabia's Independence Day in Riyadh September 23, 2009. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed
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LONDON (TrustLaw) – Saudi Arabia should lift obstacles such as gender-based discrimination and male guardianship to allow the country's first female lawyer to practice on an equal basis with men, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.  

Earlier this month, the Saudi Justice Ministry registered Arwa al-Hujaili from Jeddah as a legal trainee allowed to practice law, the U.S.-based watchdog said in a statement.

After three years of traineeship, al-Hujaili will become a fully licensed lawyer.

“By licensing a female lawyer, Saudi Arabia has opened up a key profession to women,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“But for Saudi women to practice law on anything close to an equal footing with men, they need protection from discrimination against women in the courtroom, freedom to travel and to drive, and the ability to make their own decisions about their work lives,” he added in a statement.

Saudi judges can remove a lawyer from a case at their own discretion, which could open the door to gender-based discrimination, and some judges separate men and women in their courtrooms.

The male guardianship system, by which a man has to approve a woman's decision to work and travel, also risks putting further limitations on female lawyers, HRW warned. 

Moreover, women in the kingdom are not allowed to drive, which means a female lawyer would have to be escorted to work by her guardian.

In 2011, female law graduates launched a campaign to be allowed to plead in court.

Women's rights are a divisive topic in the ultra-conservative kingdom and authorities have taken a few steps in favour of their female citizens in the last few months.

In February, King Abdullah swore in the country's first female members of the Shura Council, a decision strongly opposed by conservative clerics.

They still can't drive cars but the kingdom has reportedly lifted the ban on women riding motorbikes and bicycles – albeit with substantial restrictions.