Last week, human rights activists attacked the Absher mobile app, which allows husbands and relatives of women in Saudi Arabia to control their movements, including prohibiting them from leaving the country. Public figures (including US Senator Ron Weiden, who called the service a tool of "blatant surveillance and control of women") called on Google and Apple to remove the application from Google Play and the App Store, respectively. The corporations have not yet done so, but have promised to look into the matter. For its part, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of the Interior, which developed Absher, called what was happening "an organized campaign to question the goals and objectives of the application."
At its core, Absher is nothing more than the Saudi counterpart of the Gosuslugi portal, launched in order to reduce bureaucratic costs. This is a single platform with dozens of functions: it allows, for example, to pay fines, renew a driver's license, register acts of civil status such as the birth of a child or divorce. In Saudi Arabia itself, where they still vividly remember running around in departmental offices, the application immediately became popular - since its launch it has been downloaded about 11 million times.
What has not been talked about outside the country until recently is that Absher makes it possible to effectively control the movement of Saudi women. Local laws do not allow women to travel abroad without the permission of a male guardian (most often a husband or father). And in the event that a citizen of the kingdom tries to cross the border of the country, the application sends her guardian a notification of this and a request for permission. Therefore, for women who are trying to escape from Saudi Arabia, fleeing family abuse, the application becomes something of a limiting electronic bracelet.
Insider tells the story of Shahad Al-Mohaimad, a Saudi woman who, at the age of seventeen, was able to escape from a family in which she had been humiliated and physically abused for years. She planned her escape for about a year, the right moment presented itself when she and her family went on vacation to Turkey. To buy time for herself, she took her relatives' credit cards, passports and smartphones - the latter precisely so that she could not be tracked with Absher.
At the same time, commentators note that the removal of Absher will not solve the problem, will get rid of the criticism of the Saudi Arabian government.
and, perhaps, will only worsen the situation of local women
According to observers, about a thousand women try to escape from Saudi Arabia every year, for whom escape seems to be the only guaranteed way to protect themselves: the local police do not always take the side of the victims when dealing with cases of domestic violence. In many cases, Absher, with its alert system, reduces the chances of escaping to zero (unless the woman was able to get to the database and change the settings, which is associated with additional risk).
At the same time, commentators note that the removal of Absher from the App Store and Google Play by itself will not solve the problem, will get rid of the criticism of the Saudi Arabian government and, possibly, will only worsen the situation of local women. Ultimately, the app's surveillance and control functions reflect the country's patriarchal legislation, which has long been debated about its leveling in Saudi Arabia itself.
“The debate on the law on guardianship is ongoing, but this is an internal matter for our society, an issue that our society must resolve on its own and not under pressure from outside,” said Muna Abu Suleiman, a Saudi TV presenter and women's rights activist.- I did a Twitter poll asking women how many of them have access to their guardians' Absher accounts. The majority answered that they were in control of their own destiny. Men who don't think they need to control women give them access to Absher, which suggests that women are increasingly making decisions.” She fears criticism of Absher could harm the already fragile dialogue between Islamic culture and the West and the gradual empowerment of women in her country: “People don't understand the implications [of the app lock]. They have very naive and idealistic views on what is happening."
Emancipation in Saudi Arabia, which in 2016 ranked 141st out of 144 in the Global Gender Gap Report's gender equality ranking, is indeed happening, albeit not too fast by the standards of the Western world. In 2015, women first received the right to vote in elections, and since 2018 they can, in particular, start their own business without the participation of a male guardian, work as a notary, drive cars, serve in the armed forces and intelligence, as well as attend sports events and cinemas (the last ones in Saudi Arabia started working only recently).
All this is the result of a strategic program proposed by Crown Prince Mohammed ibn Salman. At the same time, gender segregation in the country is still high, and women's rights are a bargaining chip in the political game (according to one version, Ibn Salman raised the emancipation on the shield in order to reduce the influence of religious authorities who do not support him in the struggle for the throne). And not everyone is sure that quick reforms can overnight change a society that has lived according to Sharia for many decades.