Want to track and detain your wife or sister? There's a Saudi app for that

Want to track and detain your wife or sister? There's a Saudi app for that
Saudi Arabia is running an app allowing male guardians to track and prevent women from travelling, as the number of women fleeing the ultra-conservative kingdom has soared in recent years.
4 min read
04 February, 2019
'Absher' (Good Tidings in Arabic), has been in operation for some years [NIC/Google Play Store]

Saudi Arabia has manufactured an application that lets male guardians to track and prevent women from travelling, as the number of women fleeing the ultra-conservative kingdom has soared in recent years.

The app, called Absher ("Good Tidings" in Arabic), has been in operation for some years. But it has only recently come into attention in English-speaking media following the high-profile case of Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi teenager who escaped fled the kingdom, finding asylum in Canada after a weeks' long ordeal in Thai limbo.

Investigate website Insider on Friday ran a detailed report on the elaborate online system, which allows males to track their female 'dependents' - e.g. wives and daughters - and receive a notification whenever they attempt to cross the kingdom's international border.

Run by the Saudi ministry of interior, it is claimed this is an attempt to create digital services platform, which include less sinister features such the ability to pay fines online. 

However, it is its 'dependent' registration and notification alert section that is being used by Saudi men to restrict the freedom of women, according to the report that has been corroborated by human rights activists and Saudi women refugees who were affected by the system.

In-line with the kingdom's male guardianship system that severely restricts the ability of women to travel and conduct various routine tasks without the permission of their male relatives, the app/system allows men to prevent their female dependents from leaving the country by clicking a few buttons, according to the report.

Saudi women seeking asylum overseas told Insider they had to resort to steal the phones of their male guardians to disable the app or secretly give themselves permission to travel before fleeing the country - as the system would otherwise enable their oppressive family members to track them down and possibly harm them or even murder them.

Read more: Saudi reforms are meaningless as long as male guardianship persists

A Saudi 'refugee crisis'? 

The revelation about the app comes amid what many are calling Saudi Arabia's own refugee crisis, triggered in part by the chilling effect of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's crackdown on freedoms and failed promises of reform especially with regard to the male guardianship system.

According to a CNN report on Sunday citing the UNHCR's public records, Saudi refugees and asylum-seekers totaled 2,392 in 2017 alone. The report also observed a spike in the numbers coinciding with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman.

The report said five countries hosted the majority of these Saudis: the United States (1,143), Canada (453), Australia (191), the United Kingdom (184) and Germany (147).

Around 1,000 Saudi women attempt to flee the kingdom each year, according to figures quoted by experts to the Insider.

Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi woman who managed to successfully flee her allegedly abusive family, was the most high-profile case in recent years. Her ordeal shed new light on the countless women trapped under the abusive male guardianship system in the kingdom.

Women face systematic discrimination and are left exposed to domestic violence under the male guardianship system and have few places to turn when they face abuse, leading some women to undertake dangerous escape attempts to flee the country.

Under the male guardianship system, a man controls a Saudi woman's life from her birth until her death.

Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but in some cases a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf. The Saudi state essentially treats women as permanent legal minors.

Saudi Arabia has done very little to end the system, which remains the most significant impediment to women's rights in the country.

"Rahaf Mohammed's courageous quest for freedom has exposed anew an array of discriminatory practices and policies that disempower Saudi women and leave them vulnerable to abuse," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. 

"Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wants to be viewed as a women's rights reformer, but Rahaf showed just how laughably at odds this is from reality when the authorities try to hunt down fleeing women and tortures women's rights activists in prison."

While other countries in the Middle East have elements of the male guardianship system, Saudi Arabia's is the by far the most draconian in the extent of its laws and regulations, as well as the authorities' efforts to apply them.