The first female law practice has opened its doors in Saudi Arabia. The Islamic kingdom granted four women law licenses in October, a revolutionary step for women in a country where they are banned from driving.
The all-female law office opened in the coastal city of Jeddah and will be dedicated to promoting women's issues, though founder Bayan Zahran told Al Arabiya the practice will not restrict its activity to women's cases.
Saudi Arabia's first four female lawyers won a historic victory in the fall when the government lifted a ban on female law graduates, who had previously been relegated to serving as legal consultants.
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Zahran, who heads the new practice, told Arab News that her office will fight for women's rights because male lawyers are not always capable of handling women's cases.
In an interview with the English-language daily she said, "I believe women lawyers can contribute a lot to the legal system. This law firm will make a difference in the history of court cases and female disputes in the Kingdom."
While Zahran is eager to represent women in labor disputes and parental rights, the office will not shy from representing male clients. She told Al Arabiya, “Our activity is not restricted to cases involving only women. Saudi Arabia’s lawyer system treats men and women equally and a lawyer has the right to represent men and women."
Mahmoud Zahran, Bayan's father, lavished praise on his pioneering daughter: “We are very proud of our daughter who stands firm for protection of women’s rights. This will help all women who couldn't go and speak to male lawyers about their problems."
For her part, the trailblazing Bayan hopes to inspire women across Saudi Arabia. She told Arab News: "This is a very positive step for the Saudi court system… we are four female lawyers who got the license, but I am hopeful that in future, the number will increase."
During the initial discussions, the justice ministry had planned to only approve licenses for family law cases, but in the end the surprisingly decided to place no limits on the newly-minted lawyers.
Despite this groundbreaking step, the status of women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains precarious. Under Saudi law every woman must have a male guardian, whether a father, brother, or husband, who is authorized to make decisions in her name.
Women make up less than 20% of the labor force and face the world's only gender ban on driving. When Saudi women organized in October to rally for their right to drive, the country's Islamic clerics protested outside King Abdullah's palace.
Women were also previously banned from voting and holding public office, but King Abdullah promised that will change in the 2015 elections.