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The sixth of October 2013 was a momentous day for activist women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. That was the day that the Ministry of Justice, a male-dominated bastion, finally relented and granted four Saudi women the licence to practice law. The decision came after pressure from women’s groups, along with the tacitly subtle encouragement of King Abdullah. Previously, female law graduates—some of whom had earned a doctorate in law and whose only hope of working in the field of law was as legal consultants to law firms—had not been allowed to practise law or be granted the status of attorneys. They could not appear in courtrooms, and all their work had to be done behind the scenes. They were also prohibited from owning or operating their own law firms.
The Saudi legal system had finally succumbed to pressure from female law graduates (e.g., Arwa al-Hujaili, Bayan al-Zahran, Jihan Qurban, Sarra al-Omari, and Ameera Quqani) since 2011, when they began a concerted campaign to be allowed to fight cases in the courtroom, just like their male counterparts.
Bayan Mahmoud al-Zahran became the first Saudi woman to take centre stage as a lawyer, when she appeared before the General Court in Jidda for the first time in November 2013, to defend a client. She had been working for years as a legal consultant and had represented dozens of people in criminal and civil cases and in family disputes.
Encouraged by her entry into the previously forbidden domain, Bayan established the first female law firm in the Kingdom in January of 2014. Her firm has since committed itself to the protection and preservation of the rights of females in the patriarchal Saudi society. At the time, 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. I am very hopeful and thank everyone who supported me in taking this historical step.” Ms Zahran believes that there are 27 other women currently practising law in the Kingdom.
Bayan Mahmoud al-Zahran was born in 1985, in the coastal city of Jidda, the most liberal city in the Kingdom. She recalls her childhood as one filled with warmth and encouragement from loving parents. Her seven brothers, all born before her, perhaps shaped and toughened her determination to succeed while she was growing up.
After leaving high school, Bayan attended the strictly segregated King Abdulaziz University in Jidda, studying human resources, although she says it was not her thing. It was during her third year that she finally discovered her passion. A dear friend and a colleague at her university had suffered from a physician’s misdiagnosis. As Bayan recalls, “I stood by her and researched the laws and regulations to protect her. I found all the information she needed to help her case against the doctor. When I returned to the university after the fall break, I noticed an announcement about the opening of a law department in the female section, so I quickly signed up—within five minutes—because I felt so accomplished and gratified when I was able to help my friend avoid being victimized.”
In 2009 she began her career, primarily listening to the woes of women left at the mercy of charitable organizations, with no family member to care for them. She absorbed all their stories and gradually determined that she would not allow the victimization of women to continue unchallenged. She recalls that “there were many obstacles in 2009 when I began representing women who were beaten or mistreated. The difficulty I faced was the mindset of both men and women who had little faith in the abilities of female lawyers. But, with the consent of many women’s health-care organizations to protect women and their rights, I began to overcome this feeling and work to protect them and their rights. Being a working woman at that time was different! Gradually, with time and after the women were empowered in this field and their status made official, with all their rights and duties, we became equal to men.”
Realizing that women whose rights had been violated by male family members were shunned and marginalized by the male-dominated legal system and that most judgements came down in the male’s favour, Bayan is determined to make a difference. She says that she has had, on occasion, to reach out beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia for help in dealing with complicated women’s issues. She also has to fight her male associates’ stereotypes, who think of her as an intrusion into their club. “The courts and government departments have been dominated by men for such a long time that they have begun to believe that they are better at the job.”
“Article 6 of the Kingdom’s constitution, which is based on the Sharia, states that all citizens are equal, regardless of gender, colour, and religion.” She praised the late King Abdullah’s bold initiative to overhaul the existing judicial system and allow women entry into the field. (The principles of the Sharia are gleaned from the hadith and the Quran.)
In August 2015, Ms. Al-Zahran was successful in getting a stay order on a court ruling by Jeddah’s general court which had awarded custody of a two-year-old girl to her father based on the mother’s non-appearance in court. After reviewing the case file and the Shariah, Bayan demanded “the stopping of the ruling issued against my client and contested for legal reasons that are related to form and subject matter, the most important of which is the presence of our client to court sessions and her ignorance of these sessions.”
During those intense sessions, she says that there was considerable hostility from the father’s side. “An opponent threatened that I would be burnt alive after I received an initial verdict in favour of the mother. I reported it to the authorities and took the appropriate legal measures.”
Fortune Magazine and ArabianBusiness.com have listed Bayan al-Zahran among the most influential Arab women in the world, but Bayan doesn’t seek accolades. “ I want to raise my children and make sure they grow up with the right Islamic principles and social rights and that they contribute to society. I want to support the law graduates and help them find employment in their fields. I also want to provide legal awareness to women in charitable organizations throughout the Kingdom. And when I do have some time left, I love writing poetry. I enjoy horseback riding and swimming.”