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How One App is an “Enemy” of Saudi Arabian Women

19 December 2013, Addis Ababa - a group of Saudi women returnees wait for their turn to disembark for their respective home areas after receiving orientation by UNICEF staff. (Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ayene)
19 December 2013, Addis Ababa - a group of Saudi women returnees wait for their turn to disembark for their respective home areas after receiving orientation by UNICEF staff. (Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ayene)

“It’s an enemy of women.”

“In Saudi Arabia, citizens and residents can use Absher, an online government platform, to access Interior Ministry services. Absher comes as a mobile app available for iPhones and Android phones, as well as an online portal,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) begins in their description of the controversial application which allows users to apply for identification cards, apply for and renew migrant workers’ visas, pay traffic tickets, and obtain hajj (pilgrimage) permits. However, the application has a darker side which has come under heavy scrutiny.

HRW continues, “But with every Saudi woman required to have a male guardian, the guardians also use Absher to grant or deny permission for women and children to travel abroad and obtain a passport under a subsection on ‘dependent services.'” Further detailing,  “Saudi employers and citizens who sponsor foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia can also use Absher to approve or reject requests to leave the country.”

While HRW says Absher doesn’t track women in real time, “The portal and app effectively allow men to use modern technology to control women’s movements.”

Screenshot of Absher App on iTunes

Screenshot of Absher App on iTunes

The Story Of Maha and Wafa al-Subaie

“It’s an enemy of women,” Maha al-Subaie, said of the Absher app when speaking to NBC News along with her sister Wafa. The two planned to escape Saudi Arabia for more than five years, but Absher made it difficult for them to do so.

While the  Absher isn’t mandatory, it has come to replace the travel permission cards women needed within Saudi Arabia. NBC News detailed Maha and Wafa’s story of finally being able to escape Saudi Arabia:

On April 1, the sisters saw their opportunity. They were able to trick the Absher app, enabling them to board the first flights of their life — from the Saudi capital of Riyadh to Istanbul, and then to Trabzon, Turkey. From there, the sisters paid a taxi to take them across the border to Georgia, and now they are living in a third country that they asked not to disclose.

The al-Subaie sisters have joined a growing group of women who successfully fled Saudi Arabia in search of greater freedoms. Others haven’t been as lucky.

The Future Of Absher And Human Rights In Saudi Arabia

Sanjana Varghese of Fair Planet recently detailed what human rights activists would like to happen with the troubling app:

Women in Saudi Arabia, as well as other feminists internationally, have called on Google and Apple to remove these apps from the app store, ever since the issue first gained press coverage. But the app essentially makes a form of oppression and control which already exists in real-life into digital form—for women in Saudi Arabia, it just meant that their request to leave the country or to travel somewhere without a chaperone could be refused faster, rather than getting lost in government bureaucracy or refused a few months later. But this is also part of the larger question—how much do Apple and Google know about the apps that are on their app stores?

HRW states, “Governments should press the Saudi authorities to end the male guardianship system. They should, in particular, publicly identify all areas in which, despite Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights reform rhetoric, Saudi Arabia continues to fall short on women’s rights and advocate positive changes.”

The organization would also weigh in on the human rights violations applied by such technology. “The discriminatory nature of the travel restrictions also breaches Saudi Arabia’s obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).”

In February 2018, the United Nations Office Of The High Commissioner (OHCHR) made the following recommendations regarding Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women in the aforementioned document.

(a) To abolish practices of male guardianship and adopt implementing regulations to enforce Supreme Order No. 33322 and ensure that it entitles all women to the right to obtain a passport and travel outside the country, study
abroad on a government scholarship, choose their place of residence, gain access to health-care services and leave detention centres[sic] and State-run shelters without having to seek a male guardian’s consent;

(b) To strictly enforce the Supreme Order of 26 September 2017 lifting the de facto ban on women from driving once it enters into force, in June 2018;

(c) To ensure that claims of disobedience by male guardians are not used to subject women to arbitrary detention.

Walter Yeates

Walter Yeates is a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter who embedded at Standing Rock with military Veterans and First People in December 2016. He covers a range of topics at Citizen Truth and is open for tips and suggestions. Twitter: www.twitter.com/GentlemansHall or www.twitter.com/SmoothJourno Muckrack: https://muckrack.com/walteryeates

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