Imagine an app that tracks your movement wherever you go. Imagine that it sends notifications to a male member in your family whenever you check in at an airport. Imagine that it gives them the power, in just a few clicks on their own smartphone, of banning you from traveling altogether.
This app is called Absher. You can find it at the Google Marketplace and in the Apple App Store.
Absher (which translates into “you got it,” or “yes, sir” from Arabic) was launched in 2012 as a website by the Saudi government to help civilians cut through bureaucratic red-tape to access government services and find the right legal forms they needed to travel. In 2015, when it became an app, developers added an insidious feature that allows men to track women and even restrict their movement.
Women in Saudi Arabia aren’t unfamiliar with the feeling of being constantly policed by male authorities. They didn’t have the right to vote until 2011, and they couldn’t legally obtain drivers’ licenses until last year. Under an archaic and outrageous “guardianship” law, Saudi women are also required to obtain permission from men in order to embark on many aspects of daily life—to pursue an education, to travel, to marry and divorce, to secure employment, to complete official paperwork and even to undergo certain surgeries. They risk arrest if men deem their outfits inappropriate. According to the Human Rights Watch, there are at least nine women activists behind bars in the country right now, anticipating charges that could carry up to 20 more years of prison. While in waiting for their sentences, at least four say they were tortured and sexually assaulted.
Now, Absher is forcing women to surrender freedom even in digital space—and optimizing men’s abilities to restrict their offline lives.
Through Absher, male guardians get alerts when their legal wards go through airports; with a few simple clicks, he can ban her from getting on the plane. Through Absher, he is granted her flight information and travel logs, and he can indicate through the interface how many trips the woman is allowed to take, when she can take them and for how long she has his permission to be in transit. Even when she is within national bounds, the app provides women’s guardians with up-to-the-minute details of their location.
In a country where women seeking asylum elsewhere are routinely returned by legal officials, and often against their will, Absher has harnessed the power of modern technology to innovate smarter, faster and sometimes more devastating ways to subjugate women.
Despite calls to remove Absher from app marketplaces by human rights organizations and several members of Congress, Saudi men can still download and use the app to monitor and restrict the movement of women. Apple CEO Tim Cook says that the app is under review; Google has decided that the app doesn’t violate any of their terms and conditions.
I grew up in the Middle East, and I find the idea of somebody tracking and controlling my movement discriminatory and demeaning. It’s easy for many of us to take our freedom of movement for granted—but until all women around the world is empowered to decide their own next steps, none of us are truly free.
You can learn more about the latest efforts by Saudi women to seek freedom and equality in the Spring 2019 issue of Ms. Click here to become a member.