Friday, April 11, 2014

An uncertain future for women lawyers

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 15/4/2013

Arwa Al-Hujaili's hiring as the first Saudi woman trainee lawyer is a major step toward equality for female professionals in the legal field. But it is far from an ideal situation and the future for other women in the same field remains clouded with uncertainty.

The Ministry of Justice has shown insight and forward thinking by granting Al-Hujaili permission to work as an attorney. The Justice Ministry opened the door a tiny crack that eventually will pave the way for more women to practice law. But let’s not forget the torturous path women took to get here. 
After years of begging to get inside the courtroom and being rebuffed at every turn, women law degree holders began a concerted campaign in 2011 to be allowed to practice law in their own country. 
Last October, the ministry unexpectedly decided that Saudi women lawyers could argue cases in the court. But it took us until April to get our first trainee.
Whether Al-Hujaili actually gets inside the courtroom is the mystery.
According to the rules and regulations governing such things, the trainee lawyer must work for another attorney who has been practicing law in Saudi Arabia for five years. 
The training period could last up to three years. In theory, she is allowed to practice law, but in reality we really don’t know what Al-Hujaili will do once she steps inside a courtroom. Even if the Justice Ministry signed off on courtroom appearances will her male colleagues and the judge agree? What obstacles will she face?
The government’s motives appear to be sincere. In February, we saw the Shoura Council receives its first women members. Already they are making an impact on the decision-making process. And unsurprisingly some of the major issues female Shoura Council members are tackling are in the domestic courts. 
The domestic court system has historically behaved unfavorably to women in matters of divorce, alimony and child support. That is slowly changing, and the addition of women lawyers in the domestic courts can help better balance the scales of justice for women in general.
Yet there is no clear indication from any government sector just what women lawyers will be permitted to do. Frankly, actually practicing law before a judge seems remote at best. 
And let’s not kid ourselves that women will actually have equal footing to their male counterparts. Let’s also remember that men and women are usually segregated in court. Other issues include whether a woman who specializes in criminal law will be able to represent criminal defendants. 
The courts may adopt the Ministry of Labor’s policy that women can work as long as the job is suitable for her gender. It then may open the possibility of systemic abuses of banning women from practicing criminal law because a male-dominated oversight committee may determine that type of legal work does not suit her. 
Imagine the obstacles a female criminal defense lawyer will face if she represents a man accused of child molestation or a gruesome homicide. Whether she is free to defend whom she pleases has not been outlined by the government.
But Saudi Arabia is a country that takes its progress in tiny increments. The issue of what kind of law women may practice is far down the line. 
Getting women to practice domestic law is more practical. Here, a real change is possible. For the first time women navigating the mysteries of domestic court can rely on a woman lawyer to help them understand the system. 
Female clients uncertain about facing a legal system with a reputation of favoring husbands and fathers also face the burden of telling their story to a male lawyer, who is also likely a stranger. Having a woman hear a female client’s story can ease the trauma and indignity of domestic court.
The move by the Justice Ministry is encouraging. This should be recognized as a tentative step by the ministry to test the waters. 
There will undoubtedly be resistance from lawyers and judges. Even potential clients. But since the door is indeed open to allow at least some women practice law, then transparent guidelines must be available to provide a clear picture of what female law graduates can expect. 

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