Saudi Arabian Women, The Law, and Moral Time

by Maria-Jose Malaver

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​Moral Time Theory is a relatively new theory first proposed by sociologist Donald Black in 2011 to explain why conflict of all kinds and severities occurs. It is used in this paper to explain the social forces at work in Saudi Arabia during a time of modernization and changing attitudes regarding women’s roles in the workforce. In 2013, women in Saudi Arabia were granted the right to practice family law only. In a country that strictly forbids interaction between unrelated women and men in social and professional settings, this new law that was passed could have had huge positive implications for the equality of women in Saudi Arabia. This new law also could have caused major, possibly violent conflict due to the upsetting of a status quo that has largely kept women from participating in the workforce in all but the most minor of ways. As Donald Black’s theory will help explain, it is inequality itself that is protecting Saudi Arabian women from experiencing the conflict and violence that this new law could have generated. The extraordinarily slow and incremental progress of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia has served as a prevention mechanism to soothe any rancor that could have erupted as a result of the passing of this law.

In 2013, Saudi Arabian women lawyers were granted the right to appear in court on behalf of men or women in domestic cases such as divorce and child custody disputes (Zoepf 2016). In a country that is well known for its hard-line conservatism on religious issues and strictly enforced proscriptions for women’s behavior, the passing of this law was hailed by many women and human rights activists as a major victory in the pursuit of equality. However, a social step as great in magnitude as granting women the right to practice law may have immense implications for women’s status in the home, at work, and in public spaces. The implications of laws that alter social systems are likely intense, possibly violent conflict in places where laws strictly regulate the lives of women. In order to better understand the social significance that this law has for both women and men in Saudi Arabia, Donald Black’s (2011) theory of Moral Time will be used. At its simplest, this theory explains that all conflict, from most insignificant to violently severe, occurs as a result of relational, cultural, or socioeconomic changes between people or groups. Perhaps surprisingly, there have been no published instances of violence or retaliation against women since the passing of this law. While Moral Time predicts that there will be a severe response to quick and drastic changes to an established and accepted way of life, the lack of serious retaliation against women practicing in courtrooms calls into question the universal applicability of the theory. However, Moral Time theory does indeed explain the lax response, because Moral Time operates on coarser time scales than the current progression of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

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Saudi Women’s Rights

The law enacted in 2013 was introduced as part of the reigning King Abdullah’s plan to further develop Saudi Arabia’s legal system (BBC 2010). Before its passing, women with law degrees were only allowed to work in government and court offices, but not in front of a judge representing a client (BBC 2010, Wagner 2016). The current ban on unrelated men and women interacting socially or professionally further complicates women’s participation in the workforce. In response to this law, the ban has been eased for female lawyers in Saudi Arabia. This enables them to represent male clients in domestic disputes, go before male judges to argue their cases, and work with other male lawyers.

The treatment of women in this Islamic country has often attracted the criticism of other nations as well as censure from human rights organizations. The expansion of education to include women occurred during the 1970’s, when the oil boom in the country increased the number of Saudi men studying abroad to become involved in the business, which generated concerns that these young men would marry foreign women instead of women from Saudi Arabia who were uneducated (Drury 2015). Since then, the literacy rate for women has increased exponentially and access to studying for a law degree is relatively equal. Accordingly the rigor of preparing for exams toward a license to practice law is equal for men and women (RT International 2014). However, women are far from participating equals in the workforce, despite equal access to education and licensure. Women remain subject to the male guardianship system in place. In this system, any woman, regardless of socioeconomic status is required to have a male guardian to carry out basic tasks and to accompany her everywhere (BBC 2010). Additionally women must also ask their male guardian’s permission before becoming a working member of the household, which may explain the fact that as of January 2016, only 67 women were licensed to practice law in the country, despite thousands of Saudi women holding law degrees (Zoepf 2016).

Implications of Moral Time theory

Donald Black’s (2011) theory of Moral Time revolves around three different moral dimensions: relational, vertical, and cultural. To avoid conflict, the goal of any person should be to prevent the movement of time in these dimensions when interacting with others. When any one of the dimensions is altered from its previous state, the consequences could be anything from broken friendships to genocide (Black 2011). Relational, vertical, and cultural space are each relevant to an analysis of the magnitude and severity of responses to the presence of Saudi women in courtrooms and will be explained in turn before being applied to the experiences that women lawyers in Saudi Arabia have had since the passing of King Abdullah’s law. The relational dimension describes the degree of participation in someone else’s life. When a person becomes more involved in another’s life than they used to be, this is referred to as “overintimacy” (Black 2011). This dimension is relevant to Saudi women who are lawyers because as they become more involved in professional legal spaces, they may encounter conflict or discrimination from their male counterparts. Further impacting the relational dimension is the loss of intimacy, called “underintimacy,” that results from women spending more hours at work and fewer hours at home with children and husbands (Black 2011). Underintimacy causes conflict within families and may lead to arguments, divorces, or violent outbursts. The vertical dimension encompasses any difference in wealth, power, or performance that may contribute to the inequality of a group of people. Higher status people enjoy their elevated positions in society, and when this is challenged, it can generate conflict. Attempts to decrease inequality by subordinate groups may lead to “understratification” (Black 2011). This decrease in stratification leads to anger and retribution on the part of the advantaged groups in the society. When groups from below challenge those from above and are able to elicit significant change in the social structure quickly, the response from superiors is predicted to be harsher.

However, the time scales over which change and challenge to social roles occurs can have a strong influence on the magnitude of response. The very slow progress of women in Saudi Arabia in gaining rights like access to education, the right to vote, and the ability to represent clients in domestic cases in court has served to slowly lessen inequality between women and men. This change is also tempered by the male guardianship system and restrictions on articles of clothing and permissible amounts of skin exposure, and bans on women driving cars. This balancing act of progression toward equality and maintaining traditions has served to keep the conflict at a simmering point without causing outright and violent retaliation for the women who are practicing lawyers.

Finally, the cultural dimension refers to the material and immaterial objects that signify a way of life for a group of people. These objects may include language, religion, clothing, and ideas. Over time, new expressions of a culture as well as entirely new and separate cultures come into being (Black 2011). The evolution of cultural diversity leads to conflict because a person or group may act counter to the defined rules and traditions of the original culture. This is referred to as “overtraditionalism,” and is relevant to Saudi women because their participation in the workforce as practicing lawyers is completely alien and deviant from the conservative viewpoint of Sharia law that governs interactions and roles of Saudi Arabian men and women (Black 2011). Women who may be in the presence of unrelated men and work as lawyers in courtrooms represent a threat to a way of life that has been honored for centuries and is still a salient influencer in Saudi citizens’ daily lives. Such a radical change to the system would be expected to elicit swift and severe responses from the men in higher status positions in families and in professional spaces because the new modes of behavior are different and seemingly incompatible with the Islamic faith.

Real-World Experiences and Predictions

Much of the news reaching American media that originates in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries is of honor killings, human rights abuses, and grotesque beheadings (Habib 2016). While there are no articles or news segments relating to physical violence against women as a direct result of King Abdullah’s law, occasional stories are presented in American news media every few months of women being brutally beaten or stoned to death for fraternizing with an unrelated man. That there is currently no evidence linking violence to this law does not mean that it has not occurred. It may be that violence has occurred for a variety of trespasses made against the stability of moral time, and the ability of women to practice law in front of a judge was one of many factors involved. Violence may also have been low in magnitude or determined insignificant, therefore not covered by international media. Moral Time theory predicts that the implications of this law for both men and women will cause conflict to flare up as a result of the movements of moral time it brings about (Black 2011).

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In a society where women and men are to be kept as separate as possible unless related by blood or marriage, norms of behavior and personal space make it so that Saudi men and women are accustomed to interacting very little, professionally or socially (Zoepf 2016). This law grants women the ability to go before male judges in court, to represent male clients, and to work in the same offices as male lawyers. Upon its passing, it would be expected that this increase in involvement in the opposite gender’s life would create conflict as a result of such a dramatic movement of relational time. Given Saudi Arabia’s violent history in regards to the subjugation of its women, it would be plausible to predict incidents of discrimination in hiring and a lack of faith in the quality of a woman lawyer’s work (Sasson 2014). This would happen because other lawyers and potential clients in Saudi Arabia are not accustomed to seeing women in the same work-space as men, and are not used to confiding details about personal life with them as their representative in court.

There may also be anger from men that women are taking their jobs and a fear that their family life is suffering as a result of the woman not being at home taking care of the domestic needs. The increased presence of women in a professional setting is cause for concern among the men and women who are fully invested in upholding the moral standards of the Islamic faith and Sharia law. Women who are seen to be acting immorally, despite the action being completely legal, may be considered to be getting too close to unrelated males and therefore deserving of punishment for their actions.


When women spend more time at work, they spend less time at home. Donald Black (2011) states that the relational dimension is a zero-sum game, which implies that Saudi women lawyers would gain intimacy with their co-workers and lose intimacy with their husbands and other related male figures. When intimacy is lost, conflict begins to erupt. A husband may feel suspicious of his wife’s activities at work and feel the need to restrict her mobility even more, banning her from leaving the house with or without the exception of going to work, or even initiating a divorce. A father may worry that his daughter is spending too much time outside the home in morally risky situations and remove her from an educational setting to ensure that the family’s honor is not tarnished by a questionable inter-gender relationship. These attempts to temper the freedom that women have in response to the experienced increase in intimacy at work and decrease in intimacy at home are conflicts in themselves and further generate conflict if the woman wishes to continue practicing law.

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Moral Theory states that “too little inequality causes conflict” (Black 2011). This lack of inequality is termed “understratification,” and is relevant to the discussion of Saudi Arabian women lawyers because their increased participation in the workforce and newfound ability to represent both female and male clients in court cases is a perfect example of “underinferiority” (Black 2011). Black (2011) explains that underinferiority refers to the rise of an inferior and is directly responsible for causing conflict. The faster the rise of the inferior and the more norms it breaks in terms of superior-inferior relations, the more severe conflict is caused (Black 2011).

Only since the mid 1970’s have women had access to education, and only since the 21st century have they been able to vote, hold government office, and now be licensed to practice law, appear in court, and work with males in law firms (Wagner 2016, Sasson 2014). In the span of Saudi Arabia’s history, this new law came at a time of rapid change for women’s status in society and would seem to be perfectly conducive to generating violent beatings and killings to ensure the subordination of women. Instead, the only noticeable conflicts stemming from the passing of this law have been subtle acts, such as discrimination in choosing a lawyer, discrimination in hiring for law firms, the potential to be dismissed by a judge based on gender, and families being confused and ashamed by their daughter’s choice of career path (Wagner 2016, Zoepf 2016, Human Rights Watch 2013). This may be explained by looking at the broader religious and political systems that are still firmly in place to maintain the inferiority of women.

In Saudi Arabia, women may not drive, may only ride bicycles and motorcycles in recreational spaces under male supervision, must be accompanied everywhere by a male relative, and must cover their hair whenever they leave the house. They must also ask for male permission when traveling or to receive an education, and are strictly prohibited from interacting with male strangers (BBC 2010, Zoepf 2016). While this particular law signifies a slight leveling of the playing field between men and women lawyers as well as women who wish to go into the law profession, the pervasive presence of so many other rules intended to ensure women’s subordination enable men to keep any potential for equality at bay. A father may refuse to let his daughter attend university if her desire is to become a lawyer. A husband or a brother may prohibit a woman from leaving the house unaccompanied and refuse to transport her to and from work in order to impede participation in the workforce. The increased access to jobs in the legal profession for women does signal important changes being made for women’s status in society, but these changes are occurring very slowly and there are enough mechanisms for subordination in place that this law has caused little outright violence and anger.

Overtraditionalism and Overdiversity

Islamic faith and culture in Saudi Arabia has been respected and upheld for many centuries. Even recent rulers are known for their conservatism and strict adherence to Sharia law (Zoepf 2016). When new ideas come about that threaten to destabilize the traditions of the country, they are often forcefully rejected in an effort to reduce the amount of diversity in Saudi Arabia (BIRD 2015). When new ideas for behavior and interaction are introduced into a culture, cultural diversity increases and leads to conflict because of the movement of cultural time that threatens the status quo.

There is tension between the slow expansion of the rights of women in Saudi Arabia over the decades and traditional roles for women in Islamic culture. The increasing presence of women in male dominated work spaces is a complete break from tradition, which would be expected to cause arguments within families and possible violence to keep women outside of the work space. The lack of serious and severe responses to this change in cultural space are also explained by the slowness of the movement within the cultural dimension. Women were not given access to any and every job they wanted through this law, only to one very specific concentration of the law profession. While their increased presence in courtrooms and legal offices is an increase in diversity that has led to small-scale disputes, it has been a small enough movement of cultural time to not bring about heavy punishments and serious disputes over women’s freedoms.


When King Abdullah passed a law granting women the freedom to represent women or men in court for domestic disputes, there was much excitement at the prospect of what this meant for women’s status in Islamic society (Wagner 2016, Zoepf 2016). For example, the law gives women more freedom to work and socialize in mixed gender spaces without retribution from the religious police. However, it also could have reasonably been expected to cause major violence against women lawyers and women who wish to go into the legal profession. This expectation would be logical when considering the dimensions of moral time and this law’s potential for causing major movements in each of the three dimensions.

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In reality, however, this law has led to very little, if any overt negative consequences and disagreements. The reason behind this is that the seemingly large gain made by this law is mitigated by the many more laws that are in place to subordinate women to men in Saudi Arabia. These subjugating laws and religious norms help to prevent any dramatic movement of moral time across the relational, vertical, and cultural dimensions, lessening the impact of the passing of this one law. If large-scale conflict is to occur as a result of women’s participation in law professions, it would need to occur in tandem with the ceasing of the ban on women driving cars or the passing of a law allowing women to travel, attend school, and go out in public by themselves. This would force a very large movement of relational, vertical, and cultural space, one that is simply not present under the current circumstances in Saudi Arabia.


Anon. 2014. “First Female Law Firm Opens In Saudi Arabia.” RT International. Retrieved November 13, 2016 (

Anon. 2013. “Saudi Arabia: Huge Obstacles for First Woman Lawyer.” Human Rights Watch. Retrieved November 13, 2016 (

Anon. 2010. “Saudi Women To Be Allowed To Argue Cases In Court.” BBC News. Retrieved November 13, 2016 (

Anon. 2015. “‘Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia’ Event Summary.” Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD). Retrieved November 13, 2016 (

Black, Donald J. 2011. Moral Time. New York: Oxford University Press.

Drury, Sarah. 2015. “Education: The Key to Women’s Empowerment in Saudi Arabia?” Middle East Institute. Retrieved November 13, 2016 (’s-empowerment-saudi-arabia).

Habib, Samra. 2016. “Islamophobia is on the Rise In The US. But so is Islam.” PRI’s The World. Retrieved March 13, 2017 (

Sasson, Jean. 2014. “Saudi Arabia: Timeline.” Jean Sasson. Retrieved November 13, 2016 (

Wagner, Rob L. 2016. “Saudi Women Lawyers Achieve Equality In The Courtroom .” The Arab Weekly. Retrieved November 13, 2016 (

Zoepf, Katherine. 2016. “Sisters in Law.” The New Yorker. Retrieved November 13, 2016 (

Associated Course: ​SOCI 4800

Faculty: ​Dr. Mark Cooney

WIP TA: ​Jeffery Patterson

Citation style: ASA

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