An app for women’s rights

Saudis can use their cell­phones to help nav­i­gate the le­gal sys­tem

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - By Molly Hennessy-Fiske molly.hennessy-fiske @la­times.com

RIYADH, Saudi Ara­bia — Women’s rights in Saudi Ara­bia have al­ways been a con­tentious is­sue. Women have only re­cently won a lim­ited right to vote, they can’t work close to men and the de­bate over whether they should be al­lowed to drive has gone on for years.

The World Eco­nomic Fo­rum in its 2016 re­port on the global gen­der gap ranked Saudi Ara­bia 141 out of 144 coun­tries for gen­der par­ity — down from 134 out of 145 in 2015.

Only Syria, Pak­istan and Ye­men ranked lower.

But laws and reg­u­la­tions are chang­ing, as a re­view of the king­dom’s strict guardian­ship pro­vi­sions gets un­der­way. And as it turns out, some of the widely prac­ticed re­stric­tions on women in Saudi Ara­bia are en­shrined not in law, but in so­cial prac­tice.

Women are be­gin­ning to test those lim­its, but many are not sure of the rules. Can women file for di­vorce? Sue for child cus­tody? Pur­sue crim­i­nal charges if a brother steals their jewelry?

Af­ter field­ing ques­tions from women con­fused about their rights, Saudi lawyer Nas­reen Issa, 30, cre­ated an app for iPhones and An­droid de­vices called “Know Your Rights.” It’s in Ara­bic and English, de­signed for both Saudis and for­eign women liv­ing in or vis­it­ing the king­dom.

There’s an in­tro­duc­tory video ex­plain­ing women’s ba­sic rights, and icons to help nav­i­gate the le­gal sys­tem, which re­lies in part on Is­lamic re­li­gious law, or sharia.

Issa met with The Times at her Riyadh of­fice to walk us through the app.

Why cre­ate an app?

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.

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 women’s king­dom, any­thing is there. There’s even a sec­tion on in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights: 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.

How did you pre­pare?

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. The rea­son I went to cor­po­rate law is be­cause in Saudi Ara­bia there are no fam­ily law firms. It’s not like “Bos­ton Le­gal.” That’s why I did it on the side. In the U.S. you can make money as a di­vorce lawyer. It’s not like that here.

What did you learn from your re­search at the Saudi courts?

They’re very old school. When you file a law­suit, you have to no­tify the other party and they have you draw a map of where they are. A lot of these women are un­e­d­u­cated, they don’t know how to draw. So I did this icon called “op­po­nent lo­ca­tion.” It’s linked to Google Maps. All she needs to do is go to her hus­band’s house or who­ever she wants to sue, click on it and print it to give to the clerk .... We have a video that ex­plains the whole process of fil­ing, and law­suit tem­plates.

If a woman doesn’t know her rights, the judge isn’t go­ing to ex­plain, he’s just go­ing to say, “Next!” ... We have writ­ten laws that she can use to her ben­e­fit, but with sharia, it’s a lit­tle harder. 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.

You funded the project your­self, and the app is free. What kind of re­sponse have you re­ceived?

We had 50,000 down­loads. But now we have 30,000. They use it and unin­stall it. So we’re try­ing to see why that is. It is le­gal. The Min­istry of Jus­tice called me and they want to spon­sor it, but they want to do it with­out a fee. So I’m try­ing to talk to them be­cause I have to rent a server.

The app has an icon that con­nects women with ques­tions to you, ping­ing your phone — what do they say?

Some­times they say “I don’t un­der­stand,” and I tell them to watch the video sev­eral times. There’s a kind of de­pen­dency.

I cre­ated an icon for the lawyers di­rec­tory be­cause I can’t take these [calls] all on my own. We have all the con­tacts and for those with­out lawyers it says “email me your CV.” Most of them are vol­un­teers. I get about 47 con­sul­ta­tions a day. I just put the ex­pat icon up this week and I got two calls, one from a woman in Ari­zona who said she’s mar­ried to a Saudi and had some is­sues, one from an ex­pat woman in Jidda who’s di­vorc­ing.

Un­der the king­dom’s male guardian­ship sys­tem, women are con­sid­ered mi­nors. King Salman is con­sid­er­ing changes to the sys­tem — how would that af­fect women’s rights?

What the king said is if there’s no laws or reg­u­la­tions or sharia [re­quir­ing guardian ap­proval] then you can’t do it. If you want to look for a job, some jobs will re­quire a let­ter from a guardian. That would be out.

But other ar­eas where women need guardians’ ap­proval are less clear?

There’s still rent­ing a flat, re­lease from prison, trav­el­ing, mar­riage.

Re­lease from prison?

Let’s say your time in prison is over. It’s not like the movies where the doors open. If her guardian doesn’t come get her, she just rots there.

So it’s not clear whether the king in­tends to change that, but do you think women’s rights are ad­vanc­ing?

It’s def­i­nitely mov­ing for­ward, but it’s baby steps .... There is pres­sure from abroad. Plus Saudi Ara­bia has a seat on the U.N. women’s com­mis­sion [as of April]. That’s go­ing to make them want to show re­sults.

Car­olyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

SAUDI ARA­BIA was ranked 141st out of 144 coun­tries for gen­der par­ity in 2016.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske Los An­ge­les Times

L AW Y E R Nas­reen Issa cre­ated an app for iPhones and An­droid de­vices called “Know Your Rights.”

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