Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- Saudi Arabia’s first woman to hold a senior position in a government department, Fatima Qabel, is about to begin practising law in an official capacity.
A former legal consultant at the authority for supervision and investigation, which oversees the financial and administrative dealings of government agencies, Qabel spoke to Asharq al Awsat about her unique journey to the height of her profession. She discusses the situation of women in the Kingdom, including the leading framework, as the first female students prepare to start their law degrees.
Following is the interview in full:
Q- You spent fifteen years at the authority for supervision and investigation. How did you start your career?
A- I did not start my career at the authority. After completing my law studies outside the Kingdom, because I was not able to attend law school here, I was appointed to the social services department. Despite my prior insistence on working only in my field of specialization, I accepted. My year-long assignment proved to be very enriching; I learned about office work, archives, copywriting and other activities which assisted me in later years.
Q: How did you make the switch to the authority?
A: My director at the social services department received a letter from the authority of supervision and investigation. Believing I was under investigation and not wanting to embarrass me in public, she arranged a private meeting. She handed me the letter and was taken aback when I smiled broadly whilst reading its content! Only when I told her I had been appointed at the authority did she understand the reason for my happiness!
At the time, the authority lacked a section for women. I took part in setting up the administrative framework and the rules and regulations to conduct our fieldwork and monitor government agencies. Our job entailed knowing all the details of every government department we visit and supervising its work. We also look out for violations and any problems encountered. In the beginning, the authority did not have a set agenda: we visited all the departments in one area at a time.
Q: The field of supervision and investigation was exclusively male. Do you think it is possible to focus on the contribution of women especially given your experience and the establishment of a section for women?
A: In all honesty, if the authority is to increase the visibility of women, they have to be given more power, which is strongly needed in this period of rapid development. Field visits demand wisdom, strictness, and the ability to interact with different types of people.
As for women being celebrated at work, I think this depends on a woman’s ability. There is nothing that prevents her from excellence. Crucially, she has to be confident and strong and not expect support until later.
Q: Most of the complaints by women and their suffering is caused by close relations such as parents and family members. Can a woman obtain her rights without resorting to a specialist authority?
A: Confronting the issue of violence against women, currently being discussed, is dependent on each side’s knowledge of their rights and duties. Women sometimes do not know about their rights so do not demand them. The convention against violence is not a privilege in itself; it is an attempt to apply the rules the Quran pointed out 14 centuries ago which have been disregarded as rules followed custom and not religion.
Q: On the subject of women’s rights and duties, do you believe the National Human Rights Association, founded a year and a half ago, has been able to assist Saudi women in solving some of the problems they face?
A: The association is doing its best help women. My personal view is that individual efforts are never enough. There must be a mutual and joint effort to spread awareness which is partly the responsibility of the media.
Q: It is reported that the majority of women prisoners sentenced for criminal offences are the victims of their relatives. How do you explain this?
A: Sadly, the adverse effects of social pressure on women, as well as women’s general view of themselves as weak and victim contribute to female crime and attacks on the abuser, usually a father, brother, or husband. Discrimination between men and women starts early in life with women treated as second class citizens and men given all the authority. The outcome is that our society becomes male- dominated and does not accept challenges to their power. The media also plays a part in reinforcing this ideology.
Q: You mentioned social conditions that might encourage women to commit crime. For example, if a woman murdered her husband because of problems that court may not recognize, such as a significant age difference, would it be right to apply the law and religious edicts in this respect without considering such matters?
A: No law can be set without prior knowledge of its application. Of course, the psychological and social conditions of the people involved need to be taken into account. In the case you cited, I believe the real criminal was the guardian who consented to this marriage, as they are responsible for the girl who is only a minor.
Another point that I think is extremely important is that of age difference. There exists a psychological boundary between husband and wife due to age, so how can a girl be asked to marry a man more like her father considering all practices of marriage!
Q: In the previous example, what are the legal procedures that are followed?
A: The law depends on each individual case according to material evidence. The parent is also questioned because s/he encouraged such an act.
Q: We hear that most cases that are brought to the legal courts concerning women focus upon the issues of heritage or divorce. To what extent is this true?
A: This is relatively true for reasons that relate to women themselves. Heritage is a natural right; however, the sad truth is that many families deprive women of this right due to considerations of the tribe or family.
As for divorce, this has become a serious problem within our society because of numerous cases. It occurs as a result of incorrect choices being made and the gap in education and social status. The attempt of society to keep up with the modern era and its continuous transformations had an obvious impact on social relations. Men and women now prioritize their personal interests rather than general interests especially when it comes to those of the family.
Q: Now that cases of divorce and custody are openly discussed, will there be special courts that address family issues?
A: Although it is important to establish courts for families and children, we must first question why no offices exist to help couples before they consider divorce. This form of reconciliation is suggested in the Qu”ran, which has the same purpose as the courts to which you address. This method would prevent the uncivilized methods to which husbands and wives resort, in turn affecting the children. Furthermore, women should supervise these courts so as to determine any cases if physical abuse for example.
Q: Do you believe that the Khul” divorce in which a couple divorce against the will of the husband and all financial rights of the wife are surrendered, is an alternative solution for a woman to quickly achieve what she wants?
A: The Khul” is based on the wife freeing herself from the authority of her husband. The problem remains that a wife may enter an auction-like battle in which the husband can request as much as 30,000 Saudi Riyals for divorce. Judges of such cases are also guilty as they frequently say "Pay your husband to get rid of him," thinking that this is helping the woman”s case where in actual fact, there is no religious or social justification for compelling a woman to giver up her rights.
Q: Are there rules on the amount of money paid to obtain the Khul”?
A: Indeed, there are many rules. The money returned is the value of the dowry formerly paid by the husband. Some people also request the value of presents and so on.
Q: You studied law in Cairo but do not practice it presently. Do you believe that there is a need for female Saudi lawyers?
A: Law is a field that must be dealt with objectively and I have been asked a number of occasions if I believe that a woman should be a lawyer. This is a question that reflects the ignorance of human nature because all religious rules including reward and punishment apply to both men and women. The only difference relates to that of biological roles and there are no references to mental capacities since success depends on how far a woman will use such capacities.
People who refer to the prophet”s saying (PBUH) that "they are short of mind and religion" deprive the text of its real meaning and use it to serve their own wishes. You can never control a person in an emotionally imbalanced state and this applies to both men and women. The decisive point here is ability rather than sex. I am afraid that this is now used for what they call discrimination against women which has become a term too often used by others.
Q: So does discrimination against women exist in reality?
A: If such discrimination exists then it is because of women themselves as they are the ones who educate. When a woman differentiates between the upbringing of her son and daughter then this is the beginning of such discrimination. It is for this reason that we find ourselves in the situation that we are in today.
Q: In which areas does society require female lawyers?
A: We cannot determine certain areas or limit a woman”s work to certain fields because this in itself is the practice of discrimination. However, I will say that women are needed in cases that deal with property and those of authority in which the rights of women are ignored.
Q: According to the system, there is nothing to prevent women from practicing law. In your view, what are the obstacles that prevent women from obtaining the license to practice?
A: Firstly, the license of the faculty of law, which gives you the right to practice the profession, will permit one to open an office and practice law including consultancy, defense but not authorization. This is stated in the system and is likely to be argued.
Q: Supposing one is given the license, what other obstacles may hinder a woman in her practice and how can one overcome them?
A: A major obstacle is the abstention of women from female lawyers as they do not stand as independent authorities. We need to practice law and I believe that this will take a long time.
Q: What directions or suggestions can you make to help women in this regard?
A: There is nothing left that prevents women from the practice especially since requests were submitted to the Ministry of Justice because the proof of practicing the law is the license.