“It was one of the best feelings of my life, I will never forget it.”
Norah Alshahrani, a Saudi lawyer and professor, was amongst the first women to become a practicing lawyer in Saudi Arabia. She’s been carrying this sentiment with her through the transformation of her country and her own career the past few years.
The first batch of female Saudi lawyers graduated in the early 2000s, yet women were still not allowed to practice law. Since then, there have been thousands of women joining the judicial system. Norah is not only one of these women, but an integral part of driving forward systematic change.
While many law graduates were flying abroad to pursue their careers in other countries, Norah decided to stay and pursue law in a time when Saudi communities were strongly against it and saw going to court as 3aib, or shameful.
“They saw it as a disgraceful place for women to be,” says Norah, who began her degree not knowing if she would ever be able to pursue it as a career. “People asked me how, even if someone miraculously allowed me to practice law, would I go into courtrooms and mingle with men I am not related to?”
Traditionally, Saudi women have been encouraged to study within the service or social sciences industries. The impact of gender roles caused a generational divide and restricted the fields of study for women. In the last decade, Law was amongst the first courses that women were being offered in universities.
Having female lawyers at the forefront resulted in more permissive reforms for all Saudi women, as they were pushing for change with an urgency. “They were pursuing every legal means and every time one of them got kicked out from a courtroom, another one would go in.”
Over the last five years, Saudi has opened up the space for more broad transformations and given women rights they have been demanding for decades. They are now relatively better integrated into society: being able to drive, contributing to the economy by joining the workforce, buying their own property, holding decision-making positions, and working to disband the guardianship system.
With this, the taboo of going to court has slowly ebbed away, opening up the space for people to see justice through the law. Just as Norah graduated in 2012 from King Saud University, women were granted the right to practice law.
Following her bachelors, Norah pursued a master’s program at Naif Arab University for Security Sciences, specializing in criminal justice. “They were offering criminal law for female guards so that they can do their job better, but we were technically the first batch to graduate from that degree with a comprehensive knowledge of criminal law.”
She was yet again barraged with questions of how and who was going to let her practice criminal law, and that she couldn’t possibly want to defend criminals. “They didn’t ask the men these questions,” she notes.
When she obtained her license in 2016, things began to change quickly. The first day she walked into the halls of a Saudi courtroom, she was the only woman. “In the next five years, I witnessed the development of an elevator and bathroom just for women, because suddenly there were more women in that courtroom,” she says.
While she continued her practice, she was approached by Nasreen Al-Issa, a corporate lawyer who self-funded an app named Know Your Rights to educate and support women in family law cases. Norah and six other female lawyers volunteered with the application to provide legal counseling.
“After three weeks of the application, my phone would not stop ringing with women who wanted consultations,” says Norah. The cases varied in severity, and for the most severe cases, including domestic violence, she would mark down their numbers in asterisks.
In all aspects, Norah advocates for women to stand up and fight without being pushed to the shadows. It was a part of Norah’s dream to teach law because she strongly believes in the important role of female lawyers in a conservative society. She took on a part-time position as a professor at Princess Noura University for four years where she offered practical courses over theoretical ones.
Based on that, other universities quickly began to replicate those efforts. In the beginning of 2020, the Public Administration Institute appointed Norah to teach the first group of Saudi female investigators in the Public Prosecution, which she considers as a great honor and opportunity.
One of her students was the campaigner who changed the niqab-only law for female lawyers in the courtroom. Norah recalls that she abided by this law because she didn’t want to disappoint her clients by being kicked out of the room for not covering her face, so she is proud that her student was brave enough to walk in wearing the hijab.
“She got kicked out, the judge refused to see her. And when she went out she made a huge fuss. It went viral on Twitter and reached the highest authorities. The next day when we walked in the signs were taken down.”
Today, many people are embracing more progressive thought and have more awareness of changes that need to happen. As things continue to shift and change, Norah is hopeful for where they can take the country.
“There are a lot of decrees being passed, and now they need to be written down so no one can second guess their freedom and rights.”