Saudi women walking outside airport

Apple and Google urged to ditch Saudi ‘male guardianship’ app

Image credit: Dreamstime

US Democratic Senator Ron Wyden has called on the tech giants to remove a mobile app, Absher, from its app stores. The app allows Saudi men to track and restrict the movement of women under their legal guardianship.

While restrictions vary by region, Saudi Arabia is among the most oppressive countries in the world for women, in part due a formalised system of male guardianship. Saudi women of all ages have a similar legal status to minors in the UK, requiring every woman to have a registered male guardian – usually a father, brother, husband or son – who must consent to decisions such as opening a bank account, getting married, or travelling.

In 2012, the Saudi Arabian government introduced a policy to restrict women’s movement with digital devices, sending men a text whenever a woman in his charge left the country, even if they were travelling with their assigned guardian.

In 2015, the Saudi government launched Absher (meaning “yes, sir”), which allows male guardians to control women by awarding or revoking their right to travel internationally, and track them via their national identity cards and passports. Absher can provide push notifications to a guardian whenever a woman in his custody passes through an airport.

Absher is operated by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior’s National Information Centre, and can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. As well as allowing men to control the movement of women, it also functions as a more general online portal for citizens accessing public services, such as applying for national identity cards, as well as for supporting businesses.

While Absher has been used for years, it has recently come to wider public attention after Senator Wyden wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, calling on the men to remove the app from their stores.

“It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women, but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy. By permitting the app in your respective stores, your companies are making it easier for Saudi men to control their family members from the convenience of their smartphones and restrict their movement. This flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend,” he wrote.

“I ask that you take immediate action to prevent your technical infrastructure, including your app stores, from being used by the Saudi government to enable the abhorrent surveillance and control of women.”

Dr Hala Aldosary, a US-based Saudi academic and activist, told the New York Times that Apple and Google removing the app could send an important message to Saudi leaders, who are increasingly promoting technology as a key part of their effort to diversify the oil-rich kingdom’s economy: “If the tech companies would say “You are being oppressive” that would mean a lot,” she said.

A Google spokesperson told the New York Times that it is assessing whether the app is in accordance with its policies. Meanwhile, Apple CEO Tim Cook told NPR that he had not heard of the app, although he said that he would “look at it”.

Although the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, has taken some actions which appear to inch very slightly towards gender parity, including lifting the ban on women driving, a report by Human Rights Watch asserts that the female campaigners fighting for the drive have been jailed and tortured by Saudi authorities.

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