As Arwa Al-Hujaili begins her legal career, she has not only her own expectations to live up to, but those of a generation: she has just become Saudi Arabia’s first female lawyer.
After three years of petitioning the Ministry of Justice, Al-Hujaili, 25, has finally received her registration to practice as a trainee lawyer, the first woman to do so.
“People tell me I’m a pioneer and I feel I need to live up to what they expect of me,” says Al-Hujaili. “There’s a great sense of responsibility. From now on, people will look at everything I do.”
Al-Hujaili, who decided on a legal career while preparing for university, graduated from King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah in 2010 and expected to be able to practice as a lawyer immediately.
But much to her frustration, she has spent three years in a professional no-man’s land, able to work as “legal consultant” but not officially recognized as a lawyer.
Universities in Saudi Arabia began taking female law students in 2005 and the first graduates completed their studies in 2008. But the optimism soon wore off when female graduates found themselves unable to gain registration to practice.
Many of Al-Hujaili’s classmates, frustrated by the lack of progress in Saudi Arabia, left the country to work abroad. But Al-Hujaili stayed in her hometown of Jeddah and continued to apply for registration.
In the meantime, some of her contemporaries began an online campaign to push for change, including a Facebook group called “I am a lawyer,” a Twitter campaign and YouTube videos from women arguing their right to practice.
In October last year, after accepting a petition with 3,000 signatures submitted by a group of female law graduates, King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to register as lawyers. However, the Ministry of Justice still wasn’t processing applications from women.
“I kept on following up, but they wouldn’t give me an answer either way,” says Al-Hujaili.
A friend and vocal campaigner, Hanouf Al-Hazzaa, then wrote a newspaper article in which she pleaded with King Abdullah to intervene.
Al-Hazzaa had been one of Saudi Arabia’s first batch of female law graduates in 2008, but had gone to the United States to practice after becoming disillusioned with the situation at home.
“I wrote about how depressing the situation was, saying here we were, many of us working for federal courts outside the Kingdom, because we had no future inside it,” says Al-Hazzaa
Two days later, the Ministry of Justice announced they would start accepting applications and soon afterwards Al-Hujaili’s application was granted.
Now working as a trainee lawyer and due to qualify fully in two years, Al-Hujaili hopes to pursue a career in family law to help other Saudi women.
“Many women really need to talk to female lawyers, and I want to help those women to get their rights,” she says.
Al-Hujaili knows the path ahead won’t always be smooth.
“The social aspect is a very considerable one, for society to accept women lawyers, it’s something new,” she says. “It will be also challenging for the judiciary system to deal with female lawyers, but I think we can overcome these hardships if we prove ourselves as competent lawyers.”
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, agrees that challenges remain for female lawyers.
“Saudi judges have a lot of leeway, and can remove a lawyer from a case,” says Coogle. “She might face judges rejecting her counsel or not allowing her to speak, particularly if that judge is conservative and doesn’t want women to speak in court.”
Other female lawyers are now following in Al-Hujaili’s footsteps and gaining registration, although exact numbers are unclear.
For Al-Hujaili, being able to pursue a legal career at home was well worth the wait.
“Success is a nice feeling, especially when it comes after tribulation,” she says.
Read more: CNN