Kuwait is poised to appoint the first three female judges in the nation’s history this August, as reported on June 2nd by Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al Qabas. These judges were among the first cohort of Kuwaiti female prosecutors appointed in 2014. South of Kuwait on June 1st, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia appointed 50 women as public prosecution investigators on June 1st. It was not until August 2019 that the first women were appointed to the Kingdom’s Public Prosecutor’s Office. The respective governments commended the historic appointments, with Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud bin Abdullah Al-Mau’jab lauding the Saudi appointment as “reaffirm[ing] the Saudi leadership’s determination to allow women access to prosecutorial work.”
Early June’s flurry of female appointments to the judiciary in the Gulf was not a regional anomaly, but rather represents a notable trend of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries taking tentative, well-publicized steps to integrate women into their respective judicial branches. The appointment of the inaugural women to prosecutorial and judicial positions is a momentous realization of transformed political, institutional, and gender norms. At the same time, however, it equally illuminates the Gulf’s colossal lag in achieving gender-representative judiciaries in comparison to the MENA region at large. It is vital that the GCC nations capitalize upon these recent appointments of women as an opportunity to create institutional strategies that would consolidate progress towards gender equity and encourage continued gains in the creation of gender-representative judicial institutions. Too few women are represented in Gulf judiciaries, but it is not too late.
The Gulf Lags Behind in Judiciary Gender Representation
Despite historic gains for female judges and prosecutors in the region, the Gulf is far from achieving gender-balanced judiciaries. Relatively isolated appointments have not yet sparked the systematic pursuit of women’s representation in judicial institutions. Prominent appointments provide leaders and legislatures alike the opportunity to vocally reaffirm their commitment to women’s rights and professional attainment, garnering attention from the media and the international community. While encouraging, they are not indicative of any systemic gender integration. According to data from a United Nations Economic and Social Committee for Western Asia (ESCWA) report, Bahrain leads the GCC in terms of gender representation in the judiciary, with women comprising nine percent of judges. In Qatar, women are a mere one percent of judges, and even less than one percent of judges in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Presently, Kuwait and Oman have yet to appoint any female judges. Comparatively, the Gulf’s achievements in representation of women in prosecutorial positions are sizable yet nonuniform gains, with women comprising 14% of prosecutors in Bahrain, 20% in Oman, and less than one percent in Qatar.
Appointments are a step in the right direction, but Gulf judiciaries remain far more segregated than those of the MENA region at large. Female judicial appointments have vastly increased since 2006 when Bahrain was the first GCC country to appoint a female judge, yet the average rate of female representation in Gulf judiciaries — despite being positively skewed by Bahrain — is less than two percent. Comparatively, the average representation of women in the judiciaries of Arab states is 14 percent. While appointments of women in the Gulf are inherently significant, they remain isolated and sporadic enough to make little contribution to sizable institutional change.
Why Should the Gulf States Care?
Gulf nations are encouraged to uphold women’s rights under international human rights law. As all GCC member states ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the states are required to defend the principle of non-discrimation on the basis of sex. Further, CEDAW affirms that women are entitled to participate equally in public life, and nations must “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country.” Undoubtedly, this right to equal participation in public life includes women’s participation in judicial institutions.
Moreover, gender representation improves judicial institutions. According to the United Nations, equal representation of women creates robust, nonpartisan judiciaries that are better equipped to administer justice and comply with good governance standards. Gender-representative judiciaries are perceived by citizens as more legitimate and less susceptible to corruption. Additionally, women’s participation in the judicial system improves women’s access to justice and thus aids in the attainment of women’s rights. Gender integration in judicial institutions is therefore beneficial not only to women but also to the strength of the institution and to governance as a whole.
The Need for Systemic Policy Solutions
Exploring systemic policy solutions to promote women’s participation in the judiciary would allow Arab Gulf states to utilize momentum from recent appointments as an opportunity to ensure women are increasingly, substantively, and continuously represented in the judicial branch. The development of national targets, perhaps through quotas, would assure accountability from Gulf nations and ensure continued progress toward women’s integration in judicial institutions. Further, the region must continue to strive toward institutional transparency and the reshaping of judicial cultures to be more conducive to the participation of women. These steps will enable the continued and expanded participation of women in the judicial branch.
Collection and publication of data on the rates of women’s representation in all levels of the judiciary is vital for the GCC’s progress in achieving gender-representative judiciaries. Data collection by Gulf states would address the profound data deficit that currently exists. The existence of detailed data will facilitate better understanding of trends in women’s representation, barriers to increased gender integration, and feasible solutions to consolidate and encourage continued progress. Additionally, published data will hold Gulf nations accountable to their stated aspirations of gender-equitable judicial institutions.
The Gulf’s progress over the past two decades in women’s representation across government is indicative that gender-representative judicial institutions are achievable. However, the GCC will not assemble these judiciaries merely through the infrequent appointments of women. Institutional strategies are desperately needed. Arab Gulf States have created an opportunity for institutional transformation through prominent appointments, and it is time for Gulf nations to act upon their stated aspirations for gender equity in government. Improved data collection on gender representation and substantive policy solutions to ensure sizable, continued growth in women’s representation are essential to the continued progress of GCC countries. Sporadic and incremental appointments, while historic, are not enough.
Sheridan Cole is a Visiting Research Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a Boren Scholar. Her research interest is focused on gender representation in the Gulf’s political systems.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.