Doua Alattas enrolled in the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution with the goal of becoming a role model for women as a practicing lawyer in her home country of Saudi Arabia.
Tucked away in Doua Alattas’ Malibu closet hangs her traditional abaya and scarf—pieces of a life more than 8,000 miles away.
At home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the duo of garments had much more of a presence. The law required that Alattas be covered in the cloak whenever she was seen in public. In America, where the law requires nothing of her attire, the traditional clothing represents respect for Alattas’ country—and for her family.
When the 26-year-old walked on to Pepperdine’s Malibu campus in January, her Abaya and scarf were absent from her chosen fashion for the day.
“I want to fit into the culture,” she explained. “I want to embrace life in America.”
She is methodical in, and acutely conscious of, each decision she makes.
Just two years ago Alattas was preparing to marry a man to whom she had been introduced by her family. It was to be an arranged marriage of sorts—an ever-present practice in the Saudi culture.
“We just weren’t a good match,” Alattas said. “I could not see myself living my life that way.”
With her future in mind, Alattas ended the relationship, challenging cultural expectations. The decision was accompanied by the announcement that she wanted to attend law school in the United States, pursuing a career that, just two years ago, was nearly unattainable for women in Saudi Arabia.
“There were no Saudi women practicing law,” Alattas said. “It was not accepted.”
Alattas’ parents were not immediately sold on the idea of their eldest daughter moving to the United States. Her father, a native of Al-Hejaz, and her mother, who is originally from the Soviet Union and Egypt, encouraged their young daughter to stay in her home country and become a doctor, a position that was considered more acceptable for women to pursue in the Saudi culture. But Alattas’ interests were in law and in becoming a role model for young Saudi and Middle Eastern girls who might want a similar career.
Taking a Chance
Alattas graduated from the University of King Abdulaziz in 2008, four years prior to her decision to move to the United States. She focused her studies on Islamic traditions and laws, knowing all along that she wanted to one day become an advocate for women’s rights.
“I chose Islamic studies because I wanted to get the facts about Islamic women’s rights straight from the source,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to speak up and speak out about the women in Saudi Arabia and in the Middle East. To fight for our rights.”
That desire stemmed from the reality that a woman in the professional workforce is, in and of itself, a rarity in Saudi Arabia. According to a November 2012 article in the Washington Post, the unemployment rate among women who want to work in the country is 34 percent compared to just seven percent for men. The article reported research that proved that nearly 86 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits in Saudi Arabia are women, and nearly half of those women are college educated. Alattas, if she ever returned to Saudi Arabia, risked becoming a part of the statistics. It was a chance she was willing to take.
But a silver lining seemed to appear in the face of the obstacles of unemployment. Alattas’ decision to pursue a career in law came on the heels of Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s July 2012 decision to approve a proposal to allow women to get a law license after meeting specific requirements set by the Saudi government.
“There is progress being made,” Alattas said.
An Untraditional Path
After researching schools throughout the United States, Alattas came across Pepperdine’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. The picturesque views from the Malibu campus and the warm California temperatures became an added bonus. And though it wasn’t required, she delayed enrollment and moved to Irvine, California, to focus on English courses at the University of California, Irvine. She then transferred to the University of California, San Diego, to take a course in the United States’ legal system.
“I wanted the basic skills,” she said. “I wanted to come to Pepperdine prepared.”
While studying in San Diego, Alattas met Peter Robinson, who serves as the managing director and associate professor of law for the Straus Institute. Robinson was giving a lecture on the University of San Diego campus.
“Professor Robinson inspired me to work hard,” Alattas said. “He provided a lot of support.” Alattas enrolled in classes at the Straus Institute in January, again methodically preparing for a career that will allow her to practice law in both Saudi Arabia and the United States. She is leaving the possibility of earning a JD open. But for now, her focus is on an LLM.
“Doua is an asset to our law school and LLM program,” said Robinson, who became Alattas’ academic advisor. “She is a serious and disciplined student. She has worked very hard and sacrificed much to study the law in the United States, including leaving her family and participating in intensive English programs for the last six months.”
But Robinson is aware of the struggles Alattas will likely face upon completing the program.
“Her decision to commit herself to the rigorous study of the law in the U.S. is courageous since the types of jobs she will be eligible for in Saudi Arabia are uncertain,” he said. “Her optimism about the expanding roles for women trained in the law in her country results from a positive attitude and happy disposition. She has made a very positive impression and has represented her family and country well in interactions with the students and faculty.”
Today, Alattas is encouraged by what seems to be a season of change in her home country.
“In 2011 the king announced that women can participate in the Saudi Consultative Assembly,” she said. “I am looking forward to having a place there. I’ve taken an untraditional path, but I respect my family, religion, and background. Like Gandhi said, I want to be the change I want to see in the world.”