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Saudi Arabia: Riyadh High Court Waives Requirement for Women to Fully Cover Their Faces in Courthouse

(Feb. 8, 2018) For the first time in its history, the High Court of Riyadh is no longer requiring women to fully cover their faces when they visit the Riyadh courthouse. (Fatimah Al-Dabees, Riyadh Court Waives Condition of Covering the Face and Is Satisfied with Hijab, OKAZ (Dec. 25, 2017) (in Arabic).)

The Chief Justice of the High Court of Riyadh had in the past reportedly issued instructions obligating all women attending court hearings, including female lawyers and clients, to cover their faces when they were in front of a judge. However, on December 25, 2017, he decided to waive this condition and issued new instructions allowing women to wear only a hijab (head covering) while attending court hearings. (Id.)

The change in policy had been precipitated by an incident a few days earlier in which a judge at Riyadh’s courthouse encountered a female lawyer filing reports there who was not wearing a niqab (veil covering the head and face, except for the eyes) and had her removed from the building. (Mariam Nabbout, A Saudi Lawyer Got Kicked Out of Court for Not Wearing Niqab, STEPFEED (Dec. 21, 2017).) Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Qassem, assistant deputy minister of Saudi Arabia’s authority for Judicial Affairs, responded to the incident by claiming that the female lawyer didn’t have the correct ID to enter the building and, accordingly, had to be escorted out by security personnel. He also added that the incident was still under investigation. (Id.)

The female lawyer decided to file a formal complaint against the judge’s action to the chief justice of the Court and the Supreme Judicial Council. She accused the judge of abusing his power in that his reaction was based on personal religious opinions. (Khalid Ali, Al-Lahem Submitting Official Complaint to Chief Justice and Supreme Council of Judiciary, SABQ (Dec. 21, 2017) (in Arabic).)

Dr. Eqbal Darandari, a female Saudi legal professor, has endorsed the decision of the chief justice to lift the requirement of wearing the niqab  inside the courthouse. Dr. Darandari, who is also a member of the Saudi Shura Council (a legislative body that advises the king on important issues) thought the decision would be well received because “it helps the court to provide women with all needed services … [and] women to feel more comfortable frequenting courthouses” because they are able to dress as they regularly do. (Aseel Bashraheel, General Court in Riyadh Retracts Ban on Unveiled Women, ARAB NEWS (Dec. 27, 2107); About Saudi Arabia: Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council), ROYAL EMBASSY OF SAUDI ARABIA, WASHINGTON, DC (last visited Feb. 6, 2018).) According to Dr. Darandari, while the requirements for dressing in modest attire in courts of law, which are governed by religious sanctions, must be respected, that should not mean imposing the views of a specific Islamic sect on all women “as there have always been differing opinions and sects when it comes to hijab.” (General Court in Riyadh Retracts Ban on Unveiled Women, supra.)

Saudi human rights lawyer Abdulrahman Al-Lahim has endorsed the concept of not forcing women to cover their faces, stating that, because there is no law in Saudi Arabia obligating women to cover their faces, no one in authority can compel them to do so.” (Abdulrahman Al-Lahim, No One Can Force a Woman to Cover Her Face, SAUDI GAZETTE (Dec. 26, 2017).) Commenting on the removal of the female lawyer from the courthouse, Al-Lahim declared that “no judge or anyone in a high position should be allowed to make their own laws and force citizens to follow them. There are religious institutions in the Kingdom that specialize in forming laws on such issues. This is not the remit of a judge.” (Id.)