Both Apple and Google are facing high external force to eliminate a mobile app through which Saudi men can track and restrict the movements of their wives and daughters.
Absher is an application, and the Saudi Arabian government initiated it in 2015. It is available to download in both the App Store and on Google Play. Absher is the eServices Mobile Application that gives the services of Absher portal in Saudi Arabia. With the application which is available in both Arabic and English languages, you will be able to perform activities like paying traffic tickets, renewing driver’s license and many other services. Absher was designed for security and privacy of user’s data and communication. With this, you can safely search your profile or your family members and even labors working for you. With Absher app, you can perform a broad range of e-Services online.
The Absher app has also created Saudi’s controversial Guardianship Law. This law is the legal relationship with a person, and it has also been charged since it restricts women’s rights and used by men in Saudi to track women. This guardianship laws of Saudi controls women from traveling without permission from their male guardians. With this app, the men in Saudi Arabia can instruct or restrict their wives and daughters when and where they are allowed to travel out of the country, and it has features like sending an SMS alert when the woman is using her passport at an airport. Critics debate that the Absher application is a technology platform to create a rule book for Saudi’s women.
In a letter to Apple’s CEO Tim Cook and Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai on Monday, the high Democrat on the US Senate Finance Committee, Senator Ronald Lee Wyden of Oregon have requested the tech giants to block their technical platform and app stores from usage since they are enabling “abhorrent surveillance and control of women.”
“It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women, but American companies should not enable to facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy,” Wyden said in his letter.
“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 movements. This flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend,” he said.
On enquiring about Absher app which allows Saudi men to control the movements of their dependents, Cook said to National Public Radio: “I haven’t heard about it. But obviously, we’ll take a look at it if that’s the case.”
When contacted Google they said “looking into it,” other than that they did not say anything.
Amnesty International, a Non-governmental organization, has also requested Apple and Google to “assess the risk of human rights abuses on women which is facilitated by the App and mitigate the harm that the App has on women.”
“The use of the Absher app to curtail the movement of women once again highlights the disturbing system of discrimination against women under the guardianship system and the need for genuine human rights reforms in the country, rather than just social and economic reforms.” An Amnesty International spokesperson explained in an interview Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher, told that Apple and Google “should be considering the way that the app is being used and in practice” after noting that the tech giants apps have rules that create threats and harassment.
Begum gave suggestions that tech giants can request the Saudi Arabian government to remove the guardianship functionality from the application “Apple and Google could have more oversight over any government services apps anyway,” she said. “They should be looking to see whether or not these government apps are facilitating human rights abuses or encouraging discrimination in the country as well.”
We can see only very few rare cases where Saudi women have managed to use the technology to their trump card, Begum said. In those situations, a few women have been able to get control of their guardian’s phone to permit themselves to travel to the airport before he notices that something odd has happened.
But Begum highlighted that these cases are sporadic, an addition of the guardianship feature is an example of how the Saudi government has used technology to support primitive cultures.
“This (app) is not unusual for Saudi Arabia. They use modern technology to impose archaic and discriminatory rules. They are very interested in using modern tech — but (are) not looking at modernizing their actual systems, which is to move away from incredibly discriminatory practices, and incredibly demeaning practices too.”
Tariq bin Abdullah Al-Sheddi, NIC Director General, said in 2016 that “the main objective of developing the Absher App for smart devices is to raise the level of service, besides harnessing the smart devices’ potentials to provide new value-added services, as the smart applications are the future platform for implementation of e-services.” The number of registered users went ahead of 6 million in 2016, he said.