Small Steps in a Long Journey for the Middle East

It would be no exaggeration to say in many areas of professional life, women have it so much tougher. It often feels they have to be seen to be more dogged, cleverer, even more subtle and deferential than their male counterparts. This is as true in the United States as it is in many countries across Europe. But if the man’s-world mentality still finds resonance here in the West, spare a thought for women across the Middle East. For their battle for equality, though at last gaining some meaningful ground has nevertheless barely began. They’ve still a long road to travel.

Paucity of opportunity

But nothing illustrates how far women have still to travel in terms of equality than the paucity of career opportunities open to them in the male-dominated legal profession. However, even in this culturally conservative bastion, progress is finally being made. In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Justice announced in October last year it would permit Saudi women to enter the courtroom and argue cases directly, have their own offices and, for the first time, represent male clients.

According to the authoritative Lawyers Weekly in Australia, Jihan Qurban, Sarra Al Omari and Ameera Quqani obtained licences that allow them to change their status from “legal consultants” to attorneys. This was the latest in a series of milestones for Saudi women lawyers in 2013.

Early in the year, the Ministry licensed female university graduate Arwa Al-Hujaili to practise law and, after a three-year apprenticeship, to become a fully-licensed lawyer. Squire Sanders also claimed its place in Saudi’s legal history as one of the first international firms to hire a female lawyer, senior associate Dr Nadia Al-Anani, following the Ministry’s directive.

Much of the positive change now taking place across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has rightly focussed on the wealthy, oil and gas-rich countries and states that make up the GCC, the stable economic and political entity known as the Gulf Cooperation Council. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, or Saudi Arabia, another of its members and the UAE’s giant neighbour to the south, now actively encourage female entrepreneurship, with ready access to streams of finance a tangible facet of this new-found enlightenment.

Unwritten rules

Writing in the Employment Law Worldview blog, Dr Al-Anani says although nine women have already been licensed as lawyers, implementing the regulations is still not easy because of the unwritten rules of the segregation of the two sexes.

She says, “To accommodate this, Squire Sanders has already established a separate section with its own entrance, meeting room and separate facilities. However, the court building is not ready yet. Although there are no legal restrictions now on women appearing before courts as a litigant or an attorney, practically this has occurred very rarely, the reason being that Saudi society is still very conservative and the regulations simply reflect the moral structure and fabric of current cultural norms.”

Dr Al-Anani highlighted a further recent initiative taken by the Saudi Ministry of Justice, its recent decision to start to appoint female clerks at courts, describing the move as “another small but definite step forward” in the long journey. Read more about the lawyer’s weekly article here.

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