It’s quite incredible to believe that in 2019 that there exists an application who’s primary purpose for Saudi men is to monitor and track women’s movements. It’s provided by the Saudi government and it’s called Absher.
Now for anyone from a Western style democracy this would seem obscene, inhuman and unbelievable, yet it’s very real and currently even available on the Google Play Store to install on your smartphone. First though there’s a couple of background facts that you need to be aware of –
- Saudi Law stipulates that every woman must have a male guardian.
- Much of this guardian system has been computerized and put online.
- Guardians are allowed to specify which airports women can travel from (or not)
- System send text message alerts to guardians when women use their passports.
- This is not a new system it has existed for years.
It’s incredible, amazing, the digital 21st century meets the medieval ages courtesy of the Saudi Arabian State. What’s more it seems that this is application has even been given mainstream approval by appearing in places like the Google Play Store and Apple App store too.
Looks quite friendly and innocuous, doesn’t it? Absher has many meanings in Arabic which don’t really tell the real story – ‘your request is granted’, ‘good tidings’ and ‘at your service’. However these phrases are only really true if you’re male, for this application and digital service effectively enslaves women under the guardianship laws.
Imagine sitting behind this application is a database of Saudi Arabian women, with details and settings which are controlled by their male guardians. Now much of the Absher system is very ordinary and wouldn’t look out of place in London or New York. You can pay government fines, register the birth of a baby or renew your driving license (if you’re male obviously!).
Yet you really can use Absher to specify which (if any airport) a women can use to fly out of the country. Permission can be given or revoked with a couple of button clicks, so for example you could block local airports. If your digitally tracked female attempts to use one of these airports their ‘male guardians’ would notified by an SMS message to their phone.
The control over women is just restricted to which airports they can use either. The guardian can specify how many journeys the woman can take, where they can travel to and for how long. It’s supposedly there for safety yet obviously it is capable of much more. Many women attempting to escape from the confines of Saudi Arabia are caught using this system. As soon as any women attempts to use a passport they are effectively alerting any male guardian of their location and intentions.
The state argue that Absher app is available for women to use too, however this doesn’t include the travel permission pages. Any woman who wants to escape what in some cases is little more than legal slavery has to find a solution to evade Abshar. Many young women steal guardians phones and reset passwords, they can then give themselves permission to leave. Obviously this has to be done quickly before hte guardian realizes and resets those permissions.
Digital technology does offer some balance though to this grim story of modern day repression. It comes from the internet and social media which is full of stories of women escaping Saudi Arabia and starting new lives. There are lots of forums and groups where women and girls share tips and advice about making their own escape plans. Women are becoming aware that there are options and that other countries will offer them asylum if the escape the Kingdom itself. News and documentaries are spreading word of their plight too including some programmes still on the BBC iPlayer which are available by proxy. The pictures of happy, escaped Saudi women living normal lives in other countries are in themselves inspirational.