Human Rights groups are lining up to condemn Absher, a new Saudi government-backed mobile app that allows Saudi men to track women’s locations within the country and prevent them from crossing the border. The app is free and available on the Saudi version of Apple and Google’s online stores. 

Absher gives male users the option of receiving SMS alerts when female “dependents” leave certain allocated areas or present their passports at a border, essentially enabling men to track and control the movements of women.

Among other features, Absher gives male users the option of receiving SMS alerts when female “dependents” leave certain allocated areas or present their passports at a border, essentially enabling men to track and control the movements of women. Male “guardians” have the ability to register women’s names and passport numbers without their knowledge and to revoke permission for women to travel, all within the app. Men are even able to select the specific length and number of journeys women may take, and list which airports and border-crossings they may visit.

On the iTunes and Google Play Stores, Absher is described as “the official individuals eServices Mobile Application that provide [sic] the services of Absher portal in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” 

The site description continues:

– With Absher, which is available in both Arabic and English, you will be able to perform many services for individuals in KSA whether they are citizens or residents.

– Absher has been designed and developed with special consideration to security and privacy of user’s data and communication. So, you can safely browse your profile or your family members, or labors [sic] working for you, and perform a wide range of eServices online.

While the app covers a broad range of “services,” critics argue that it reinforces Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship, which requires women to seek permission from male relatives in order to do basic things such as work, travel, or apply for a driver’s license. 

The guardianship system has come under intensified scrutiny in 2019, after an exodus of Saudi women, perhaps most notably teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who was offered asylum in Canada after having fled from her family in the kingdom. Under the guardianship system, every Saudi woman, regardless of age, has a legal guardian who can restrict her autonomy in innumerable ways.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who has tried to garner favor with the West as a supposed “reformer,” has made vague indications that he favors ending the guardianship system, so far without concrete action. MbS’s notion of reform bears little resemblance, however, to what is typically considered reform.

For example, in January, it became illegal for men in Saudi Arabia to divorce their wives without first informing them. Women will now be informed that their marriages have been ended via text message, a change described by Time Magazine as “liberalizing.” Women still have no right to be informed when their husbands seek divorce in the first place.

However, such tentative steps toward providing women equal rights have been accompanied by crackdowns on women’s rights activism, including the detention and alleged torture of women’s rights campaigners, some of whom remain in prison to this day for advocating what is now legal for women: driving. 

Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called upon Apple and Google to modify the Absher app to avoid infringing upon women’s rights, while other groups have simply called for the app to be removed outright.

Activist Yasmine Mohammed accused Google and Apple of facilitating “archaic misogyny.”

“What irony,” she said. “In the West, these technologies are used to improve lives and in Saudi Arabia, they’re used to enforce gender apartheid.”

Dana Ahmed, Saudi Arabia researcher for Amnesty International, called Absher “another example of how the Saudi Arabian government has produced tools to limit women’s freedoms,” adding that giving men the ability to track women “curtails their movement and once again highlights the disturbing system of discrimination under the guardianship laws.”

Saudi Arabia is ranked 138 of 144 states in terms of the Global Gender Gap, according to a World Economic Forum study covering the year 2017, which looked primarily at women’s access to political influence, health, and education. 

Absher users within Saudi Arabia have defended the app, saying it saves hours of bureaucratic tedium due to its capacity to handle efficiently tasks such as renewing driver’s licenses, checking mail, and applying for visas and government documents.

Absher” roughly translates as “Yes, Done.” On January 17, the Saudi Press Agency stated that Absher provides the “benefits of more than 160 different procedural services to all members of the society provided by the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabian [sic] to the citizens and residents, including women, the elderly, and people with special needs.”

However, human rights advocates argue that such apparent benefits do nothing to mitigate the restrictive effect the app’s functions have on the rights of women. What is more, the useful aspects of Absher do not depend on its capacity to track the whereabouts of women. This is particularly true in countries like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where governments heavily monitor mobile apps.

As Rothna Behum, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch pointed out: “the government could simply remove the guardianship tracking functionality from the app, and continue to offer the rest of the functionality.”

However, argued Begum: “The complete control that a male guardian has is now facilitated with the use of modern technology and makes the lives of men ultimately easier and restricts women’s lives that much more.”

On February 11, United States Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote to the CEOs of Apple and Google, stating: “American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy.”

On February 11, United States Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote to the CEOs of Apple and Google, stating: “American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy.” Spokespersons for the tech giants, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, have said that they will “take a look at” the situation. The European Parliament has also expressed concern about the app being a “tool” of the kingdom’s guardianship system.

Significantly, 14 members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Apple and Google on February 21 demanding they stop hosting the app, stating that the companies are “accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabia women and migrant workers.” They further said that “21st century innovations should not be used to perpetuate 16th century tyranny.”

The lawmakers gave the two companies until February 28 to respond.

Some doubt that the companies will take any affirmative action that would jeopardize their relationships or bottom line. As Suad Abu-Dayyeh, spokesperson for Equality Now, a group defending women’s rights in the Middle East, explained to Reuters: “Power and money talks, unfortunately, without giving any attention to the violations of human rights.”

It remains to be seen whether pressure from Congress or human rights groups will stop firms from investing in government-backed apps such as Absher.