Changes come slowly in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Especially for women.
The first female trainee advocate, a sort of apprentice lawyer, was registered this week. Trainee advocates are required to work with lawyers who have been in practice for at least five years, and they must remain in a trainee position for at least three years.
Saudi women law graduates had started a campaign in 2011, asking that they be permitted to appear in court. In October, 2012, the Justice Ministry promised women would be allowed to plead their cases in court, but that promise was not fulfilled.
Still, women have moved one step closer in this Sharia-controlled nation where women are still not allowed to drive, and when in public must be covered from head to toe in black fabric.
Another major change that took place in 2013 Saudi Arabia is the admission of the first women to the Shura Council, an advisory body that provides governance on new laws. Women on the Council have their own seating area and even their own door, and there are no female ministers in the cabinet, but many see this change as radical, and some religious clerics were extremely critical of the decision. King Abdullah announced the appointments on February 19.
The King also granted women the right to vote and to run for office in local elections. That decision was made in 2011, but it won’t actually be exercised until the next elections which will take place in 2015.
Despite the positive changes, the Kingdom’s dreaded Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (PVPV) continues to play an ever-present, always-frightening role.
The PVPV police are feared in Saudi streets. They may approach and arrest anyone they deem to be breaking their rules, even those who are merely inciting “fitna” or temptation.
And just as modernity is assisting Saudi women on their glacial path towards increasing independence, it has also played a role in further shackling them.
A mobile phone app was recently approved that, when women attempt to leave the country, notifies their male guardian. All women have male guardians in Saudi Arabia. The guardian can be either the women’s father, her husband or other male relative, even a son.
“Under the Saudi system of male guardianship, the guardians – a woman’s husband, father, brother, or even minor son – have power over their female relatives of all ages, approving or declining their travel, work, marriages, official business, or health care, almost at will,” Human Rights Watch chastised the Kingdom in a public statement in August of 2012.
Still, for Arwa Talal al-Hejaili, who will be Saudi Arabia’s first female lawyer, progress is in the air.