Judicial Reform Puts Saudi Women Lawyers in a Position of All Show and No Play

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

About 10 years ago Saudi women started returning home from abroad with fresh law degrees and were ready to take on the world. And they are still waiting. Last week, the Minister of Justice, Muhammad Al Eisa, announced that Saudi judicial system will "eventually" make way for female lawyers to represent women in the court.

Given the timeline on Saudi judicial reform, I peg the year that Saudi women will be practicing courtroom litigation to be around 2019. Don't misunderstand me. I applaud the Ministry of Justice's attempts to revamp the judicial system. But let's not fool ourselves that we are seeing great advances in Saudi women's rights.

If I sound skeptical, it's because even if Saudi women do find themselves practicing law it's no more than window-dressing. Sheikh Abdullah Al Guwair, director of the Department of Lawyers at the Saudi Ministry of Justice, said women will be issued a "restrictive form of license" that gives them access to some areas of the court.

Al Guwair said the move towards allowing female lawyers in the courtroom is due to the fact that many women give up their rights because they were too shy to divulge details of their case to a man. Further, Al Guwair said that women lawyers will not be working with men and be confined to different courtrooms.

I suppose I can get onboard with the "separate but equal" concept in Saudi society. That is, I accept it as long as it's really equal. But there is nothing remotely equal in dispensing justice under this proposed system. Male lawyers are given the advantage of having full access to the court and to the judge. Omitted from the Ministry's announcement is whether female lawyers will even appear before a judge. Essentially, the Saudi judicial system is planning to ghettoize women lawyers by sticking them in a room where they can be occasionally heard but never seen.

The plan allows the judicial system to proclaim it opened doors to female lawyers, but the end result will be that a woman's rights will continue to be subordinate to men.

A woman's role in the Saudi judiciary also will be diluted by Saudi Arabia's efforts to attract foreign lawyers. The Ministry of Justice is seeking to license more foreigners to practice law in Saudi Arabia as long as they have a degree from a Sharia university, three years experience in law and a valid visa. Seeking to beef up the available lawyers to the courts by recruiting from foreign countries only further marginalizes Saudi female lawyers.

Putting aside the discrimination against Saudi women, the larger issue is the judicial system continuing to dispense justice without codified laws, with judges making rulings applied directly from Sharia. The basics of criminal and civil law, such as the right to legal representation, established legal precedent, the basic notion of a common law system and impartial decisions, are thrown out the window.

This is a special problem for foreigners doing business in Saudi Arabia. It's significant that the World Bank ranks Saudi Arabia among the top 20 countries for being business-friendly, but it's also noteworthy that the Kingdom ranks 140th out of 181 countries in enforcing commercial contracts. The World Bank reported that it takes two years for business disputes to be solved in Saudi courts.

The problem should be laid at the feet of Saudi judges who are trained in Sharia, but have absolutely no clue in business law.

Yet civil court reform appears to be moving faster than criminal. The Saudi government spent SR 8.2 billion ($2.2 billion) to establish 13 additional commercial courts and the Ministry also plans to announce verdicts on its website. This is a far cry from the full transparency needed to instill confidence in a fair and impartial court, but it's a step in the right direction.

Saudi judges are also being sent to Western countries for civil law training. Another good step, but it doesn't solve the problem that there are only 1,200 judges serving the entire country.

Saudi lawyers and judges are kicking and screaming all the way into the 21st century. But overhauling the Saudi judicial system through piecemeal efforts dooms the promise of equitable justice for all Saudi and expats. The half-hearted attempt to bring female lawyers into the judicial fold will have little impact on women having their voice heard in the courtroom. The basic premise that a fair decision can be reached without established codified laws is flawed. It only brings uncertainty, insecurity and skepticism among Saudis who are forced to turn to the judicial system for help.

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