Small steps

Saudi women’s eyes opened to their rights under the law

Saudi women take pictures with their mobile phones after the end of a prayer. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/GettyImages)

Katherine Zoepf has lived and traveled in the Arab world for more than a decade, writing about the lives of women. In her latest essay for the New Yorker, she looks at moves to educate women about their rights under Saudi Arabia’s Sharia-based laws. From free public lectures organized by a young law student, Mohra Ferak, at Jeddah’s all-women university Dar Al-Hekma — to an initiative by a teacher to empower her 12- and 13-year-old students, small steps are being taken through sharing information. That women have any rights at all under the law comes as news to many, Zoepf reports.

Given women have only been permitted to study law in Saudi Arabia since 2004, Bayan Mahmoud Zahran’s all-woman law firm, founded in 2014, has marked her as a trailblazer. The majority of the company’s case load is so-called personal-status matters: marriage,divorce, guardianship and inheritance, the New Yorker reports, often involving court visits to force ex-husbands to release children’s government records — passports, I.D. cards and so on. Such is the need for (and impediment to) women’s legal representation, Dubai-based magazine Arabian Business rated Al-Zahran the seventh most powerful Arab woman in its 2015 list, and Fortune magazine named her in its 2015 list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders.

In a nation where a woman’s testimony is calculated at half the worth of a man’s and several primarily “women’s crimes” are capital offenses — including adultery and sorcery — there is some hope among activists that the increased interest in both practising and understanding the law will improve women’s rights in the notoriously repressive kingdom.

Read the full story at The New Yorker.


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