As Saudi Arabia moves to grant more independence to women, many laws pertaining to their rights remain difficult to access and even more difficult to understand. Although women have recently won the right to vote and girls can now legally practice sports at school, the Kingdom’s widely criticised guardianship laws remain intact, despite promises to repeal them. Women are still prohibited from driving and are forced to work under segregated conditions so as not to mix with men.
But as discussions continue regarding policy changes for women, they are beginning to shed a light on the discriminating practices that are not enshrined in law but in social attitudes. However, the line between women understanding their rights and actively seeking them is far from straight and many Saudi women have no idea how to defend themselves if they encounter legal trouble.
Saudi Women Lack Knowledge about Their Basic Rights
After extensive pro-bono work supporting women who needed legal advice, Nasreen Issa, a 30-year-old lawyer from Riyadh realised how powerless they were without basic knowledge of their rights. That’s what inspired her to develop Know Your Rights, an app that would help educate women in the Kingdom when facing legal trouble.
“I realized a lot of women don’t know their rights. I thought maybe I should publish a book, but it’s an app era. Everyone’s using apps on their phone,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve always wanted to help women, been involved in women’s rights. This way they can do it themselves, be independent [...] I wanted it to be like a woman's kingdom, anything is there.”
During her pro-bono work and discussions with other Saudi women, Issa was shocked at how vulnerable they were in their day to day lives. “They do not know what to do when they are in trouble,” she told Al Arabiya News English. “They do not know how to file for a divorce, or what happens to the custody of their children. What happens when a thief steals their jewelleries, or if she falls in a mall and breaks her leg.”
Empowering Women through Legal Knowledge
The app is an in-depth guide covering the most common obstacles faced by women in the Saudi court system. It includes an animated video to give women an overview of their basic rights as well as step by step instructions on how to file a case without a lawyer. “It tells the woman their rights, it teachers how to be an independent woman, and it teaches her how to file a lawsuit without the need for a lawyer,” Issa explained. “She does not have to waste her money.”
The app also provides legal forms that women may need to support their cases, guides covering domestic violence protections, FAQs answering common female-related cases in Saudi courts and a directory of lawyers that women can safely contact to represent them. “There’s even a section on intellectual property rights,” she said. “You wrote a poem, someone stole it. Your husband stole your jewelry? You’re looking for a job? There are links, including some government links.”
Know Your Rights is available for iPhones and Android in Arabic and in English in order to support foreign women in Saudi Arabia who need legal advice.
Navigating the Complicated World of Saudi Courts
As a trained corporate lawyer Issa had to do extensive research into the Saudi court system to give women as much technical information as possible about their rights. “I specialize in corporate law, so I had to learn about sharia, to go to the courts and talk to women who had tried to get alimony and custody,” Issa explained. “The reason I went to corporate law is because in Saudi Arabia there are no family law firms.”
During her research, Issa found that cases relating to divorce and custody agreements were especially complicated due to the influence of Sharia law. “We have written laws that she can use to her benefit, but with sharia, it’s a little harder, she said. “For instance, in sharia, it says a girl from age 7 should go with her father, a boy at age 12 can choose. But the courts are now realizing that doesn’t work and are just giving them to the mothers.”
Women are also at a disadvantage as the legal system does nothing to support them with their cases and information on documents and technicalities are difficult to access for women without the education or the means. “If a woman doesn’t know her rights, the judge isn’t going to explain, he’s just going to say ‘Next!” she said.
Issa’s experience at the Saudi courts proved to her that they also needed reform in order to give women the same opportunities as men for justice.
Giving Saudi Women a Chance for Justice
Although it continues to be difficult for women to navigate the legal system in Saudi Arabia, the success of Know Your Rights - which has been downloaded 50,000 times so far - is a testament to the growing number of women willing to break down barriers in their quest for justice.
The Ministry For Justice is also interested in sponsoring Issa’s app, which is more evidence that the Kingdom is moving in the right direction in their support of women’s rights. “It’s definitely moving forward, but it’s baby steps, Issa concluded. “There is pressure from abroad. Plus Saudi Arabia has a seat on the U.N. women’s commission. That’s going to make them want to show results.”