Need Protection From Discrimination, End to Guardianship Restrictions
April 12, 2013
By licensing a female lawyer, Saudi Arabia has opened up a key profession to women. 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, and freedom to travel and to drive.
Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities need to lift the many obstacles facing the first woman to train as a lawyer in Saudi Arabia before she can enter the profession on an equal basis with men. The Justice Ministry on April 8, 2013, licensed Arwa al-Hujaili, a King Abdulaziz University graduate from Jeddah, as a legal trainee, which allows her to practice law and, after a three-year apprenticeship, to 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, and freedom to travel and to drive.”

Any woman seeking to practice law in the kingdom will have major hurdles to overcome, Human Rights Watch said. Saudi judges have wide discretion to remove a lawyer from a case before them, and nothing would prevent them from using al-Hujaili’s gender to do that. Some judges continue to segregate men and women in their courtrooms.

Between 2011-2012, the Saudi Ministry of Labor issued a series of decrees that allowed women to work, without the approval of their male guardian, in clothing stores, factories, amusement parks, food preparation, and as cashiers. However, the decrees reinforced strict sex segregation in the workplace, mandating that female workers not interact with men. Several Saudi women have told Human Rights Watch that they have secured jobs in workplaces other than the above-mentioned ones without having to secure guardian approval. Also, certain private sector workplaces remain exempt from the sex-segregation provisions. Some professions remain closed to Saudi women, however, including those that require driving since all women remain banned from driving in Saudi Arabia. 

Correction: Human Rights Watch’s April 12 news release incorrectly stated that all women in Saudi Arabia require permission from their male guardian to work. Between 2011-2012, the Saudi ministry of labor issued a series of decrees that allowed women to work in certain sectors without first obtaining guardian approval. However, the decrees reinforced strict sex segregation in the workplace, mandating that female workers not interact with men. Some private sector workplaces remain exempt from these decrees.