(WOMENSENEWS)–Tala Hejailan, a 25-year-old Saudi, is the only female lawyer in a commercial law practice in Riyadh. She sits in her own area, separate from colleagues and superiors, only meeting with them for pressing legal matters.

Since she is restricted from acting on behalf of clients in court because she is a woman, she–like other female law graduates–serves as a legal consultant.

But the promise of a new law offers the hope of fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a "real lawyer."

In February, Saudi Arabia’s justice minister announced that the government is planning to draft a law allowing female lawyers to try family law cases in court. The law is far from a done deal, however, as it would then need to survive various ministerial approvals and be signed into law by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The king can also unilaterally adopt a law without ministerial approvals.

Female lawyers and law students say the Saudi government has been talking about this proposal for several years and they hope the February announcement signifies that passage will be coming soon.

"Like any child, when I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and other such books, I became excited at the thought of being a lawyer one day," Hejailan said in an e-mail interview. "I do see myself arguing cases on child custody, divorce and other family-related issues, once women are allowed to do so."

The ability to represent women, she says, will likely help many women who currently go to court without any legal representative and argue their own cases.

"Being represented by a professional female lawyer with whom these women can speak to freely will help achieve the required outcomes," Hejailan said.

CEDAW Modifies Laws

Saudi Arabia signed onto the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW, in 2000, but reserved the right to exclude elements that conflicted with Islamic law, according to a March 2010 report on women’s rights in the Middle East by Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization for democracy and human rights.

In 2004, King Abdullah asked his all-male Council of Ministers to create legislation and modify existing laws in accordance with CEDAW. The King appointed nine women to serve as advisors to the council on all matters of particular concern to women.

In the proposed legislation, female lawyers could try legal cases in court and would have permission to represent women for certain cases, such as those involving family law. Another key reform of the legislation is to eliminate the requirement that any woman in a court–whether a party to a dispute or a lawyer–be accompanied by a male guardian or "mahram."

In January, the Saudi government drew international outcry when it sentenced Sawsan Salim to one and a half years in prison and 300 lashes for complaining against harassment by government officials and appearing in court without a male guardian.

"If women report their cases to the police, they are often accused of ruining their family’s reputation and are not taken seriously," said Nadya Khalife, a researcher with the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, who is in touch with Salim’s lawyer in Saudi Arabia.

Women’s Perspective Needed

"A woman’s perspective and analysis on issues facing women, such as male guardianship or violence in the family, are critically needed in Saudi Arabia," added Khalife in the e-mail interview.

Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, said in an e-mail interview that if the new law is passed, the government will also have to start sanctioning authorities who continue punishing women for coming without a mahram.

If enacted, the law will allow a female lawyer to appear in court by simply showing her civil status I.D. card. She can then serve as her female client’s court guardian.

Currently, a female party to a legal dispute may testify only if she is accompanied by a male guardian who can verify her identity beyond her national I.D. card.

Male guardianship laws hurt women in divorce and child custody cases, Hejailan said, since the husband is the likely guardian.

Asma Alamdar, a third year law student in Riyadh, told Women’s eNews that not allowing women to practice law and testify in court without the presence of a male guardian reflects the nation’s traditions.

"Saudi Arabia is one of the countries where women can not easily be what they really want or should be," said Alamdar in an e-mail interview.

Law Excludes Certain Cases

Hejailan said the proposed law does not apply to commercial and criminal law cases, which she felt was an important limitation, especially since women are party to criminal convictions, commercial disputes and corporate affairs.

Though Hejailan’s current legal role is restricted to that of legal consultant, she represents a gradual liberalization of official views on women in courts. In 2004, the Saudi king, then still crown prince, recommended that women be permitted to sit on the bench in family courts, not just male judges. However, this hasn’t happened yet.

Three years later, Saudi women were given the right to work as legal consultants to women and three law schools opened their doors to women.

"I dream of being a successful law student and to have a great career in law in Saudi Arabia," said law student Alamdar. "Women who study law should be able to practice all that they had learned, not just part of it."

Rima Abdelkader is a New York-based multimedia journalist. If there’s a story you’d like her to cover, she invites you to email her or send her a tweet on Twitter.

For more information:

Freedom House Report on Women’s Rights in the Middle East: