On October 16th, the Saudi Ministry of Justice ruled that Saudi women will be allowed to plead cases in court (for the first time in Saudi history) beginning next month. While this is clearly a positive step forward for Saudi women, it's important to look a bit deeper into the provisions of this law, and to examine why Saudi law distinguishes between male and female lawyers in the first place.
The restrictions on women in Saudi public life are too myriad to be listed here. Their origin comes from a very limited reading of gender roles and particularly the prohibition on the mixing of genders, based on a combination of Salafist (a very strict Sunni sect) laws and cultural norms in the Gulf. Ichtilat, the mixing of men and women, is an ambiguous question in Islam: certain Suras and Hadiths problematize Ichtilat on the grounds that it is immodest and promotes promiscuity, but it is never explicitly forbidden in the Qur'an.
But Salafi Sheikhs in Saudi Arabia tend to err on the more conservative of rulings, and gender segregation with its deep roots in Saudi tribal culture is a de-facto necessity of Saudi life. Saudi female lawyers would be breaking with the segregation of the sexes if they were to testify in court in front of (male) judges and (usually male) witnesses, so the reasoning went, and so it was prohibited.
The rather conservative Saudi Ministry of Justice had no intent of overturning gender segregation in the legal system when they originally examined the statues governing entry of women lawyers to Saudi courts. In fact, the original proposal written by the Ministry stipulated that a woman should have a special and closed office, should deal with only women clients, and should not present cases directly at courts. It was only when the statutes were reviewed by the expert's committee on the Council of Ministers that the language of this statute was radically re-written, according to the Somali newspaper Biyokulule.
Why did the Council of Ministers choose this moment to over-rule the decades long exclusion of female lawyers from mixed Saudi courts? No one can know for certain, but we can speculate that this is a top-down directive from the "reformer" King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who just last year proclaimed that women would be allowed to run in the 2015 Saudi municipal elections. Is this just another in a long list of Saudi attempts to dissipate dissent stemming from the Arab Revolutions? Or does this represent the beginnings of real change for women in Saudi society? The answers are unknown, and maybe the question of real change itself is irrelevant for the female lawyers of Saudi Arabia who will be busy 'approaching the bench' for the first time in November.