Absher: The Saudi 'Wife-Tracking' App

As many of you know from the countless news outlets and my previous post that earlier this month Saudi Arabia relaxed its male guardianship law. Thus, allowing anyone over the age of twenty-one to travel abroad without prior consent and apply for a passport without the permission of a male guardian. This had been hailed as a revolutionary move by Crown Prince Salman, however, as my previous post focused on the women who campaigned for these revolutionary changes have been detained and subject to countless instances of abhorrent torture. Yet, this change is not all it seems, via Twitter hashtag الجوازات_تخالف_القرارات# (passports), women have reported that their guardians still get notifications of when women apply for passports and thus putting vulnerable women at risk of honour-based violence. This led me to discover the inner workings of the application that provides this service, named Absher (good tidings in Arabic) which allows men to track their female dependents. This article will discuss how the app works, untangle the wave of tweets around the Saudi passport situation and provide an update into the case of Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, who has reached some backhanded progress into her release.

It was not until I had been sent some tweets via a discord server I am part of that I came across the hashtag الجوازات_تخالف_القرارات#, which after putting it through google translate comes out as meaning passports.

The account @ican_33 tweeted - "my dad received a text message that I requested my passport and when I inquired as to why this occurred as I have my own account with my own number the employee told me that the guardian has the right to know and they will continue sending these texts."

@yak33_ tweeted - "what is the right to send a letter to the father when the passport is issued to me ??????? I cancelled the date that I took."

Another account @Aa2_1435 tweeted - "I was surprised that a message was sent extracting to the mobile phone of my father, although I have a special account Babshar guardian mobile phone for my account and possible after the letter was sent to divorce since the son did not become a follower of the system under my name" followed by a text screenshot from a mobile phone. A user responds to her tweet explaining that that male guardian registered with Absher, that any messages his women dependents receive are sent to his device without seeking prior permission of the female account holders.

Most of the tweets under the hashtag seem to say similar things, both sharing screenshots of the text notifications. The general consensus is an air of confusion around the situation, with women being unsure of what this means when they actually wish to travel and apply for visas. Trying to scour the internet for any other information is proving unfruitful, little to no reporting from any news outlet, mainstream or fringe. I hope that in the upcoming weeks there is more information that breaks out, and will keep an eye out for anything more on the passport situation. But, what this has revealed to me is the app that allows this tracking of women in the country.

Bill Bostock for Insider broke the news story on Absher, the Saudi tracking app. The article tells the chilling story of a Saudi girl by the name of Shadad al-Mohaimeed and her upcoming escape from her family. She took her family's credit cards, keys, passports and their phones with the aim to slow them down when they eventually try to track her down. A year in the making the seventeen-year-old finally embarked on her escape, leaving the hotel her family was staying at in Turkey, walking down the street for the first time since she was ten without wearing the full-body covering expected to be worn by Saudi women and girls. She details the robotic routine of her life and the abuse she encountered. Her father used to bind her wrists and ankles with ropes when she was seen in the company of men who were not family members and lived under the fear of constant death threats.

She notes not even being allowed to buy products for her period and it was her brother with his $1,600 monthly allowance given by their father, who bought her supplies for the natural once a month occurrence. She was not the only woman in her family to be controlled by the guardianship laws. Her mother was not allowed access to the money she earns from her job, she did not have her own bank account, all her money went to her husband because she was his property in his eyes.

Shahad not only had to face physical barriers of leaving her family and country, but also technological restrictions. This is where Absher comes into play. A government system, which exists in its most simplest form, through a smartphone app. Absher has various meanings in Arabic from, 'your request is granted,' to 'good tidings' or 'at your service.' It is the male guardianship laws in action. The app contains a log on Saudi Arabian citizens with the intentions to prevent women to travel and catch them out when they try to leave without the permission of their male guardians.

The app allows you to do the simple everyday government processes such as register births, pay parking fines or renew your license. Like a simple HMRC app, but with the added bonus for Saudi men, track your woman and revoke travel permission with a simple tap of a few buttons. They can set off-limit destinations and even enable an SMS feature, which texts them when a woman uses her passport at a border crossing or airport check-in. This is why for Shahad and many others like Rahaf Mohammed escaping whilst on holiday where Absher is not reachable. Insider has attempted to contact Saudi authorities on the system directly and via their embassies in the US and UK, but the Saudi government is yet to respond.

This story from Insider came out before the relaxation of the laws and there is yet to be any new reporting on whether Absher itself has been altered to fit with the new freedoms given to women. According to the Twitter hashtag mentioned above, the fathers of women seeking passports of their own are still being notified. It seems that as a woman of twenty-one years old can seek a passport and travel alone, as long as your father approves, thus making the new reforms disappointing. Men angered by these reforms can still include in their marriage contracts that his wife cannot travel without his permission, still treating women like property and making the new laws completely irrelevant. It is important to note that these laws really only benefit women who were already allowed to travel by their male guardians, making it easier for them. It does not benefit all Saudi women, especially the silent majority who face immense restrictions on their lives. In the cases of many, it puts their lives at risk over the simple document that is a passport.

The confusion around the specifics of the new reforms which been masked by media celebration is emphasised by Rothna Begum, a senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, she says that the Saudi government is "trying to take as much credit as possible without having already done. They have got all the headlines." Begum even refers to Absher which still needs to be dismantled for these reforms to have any real meaning.

Finally, there has been an update into the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi activist who has been detained and tortured for over a year. Those of you who have read my previous post will be well acquainted with her, but those who are new Loujain is a remarkable woman defying Saudi standards in the campaign for equality. She was detained last year for her work in the campaign for women to drive and has been to subject to countless amounts of torture for the past year. Two weeks ago, news came out that Loujain would be freed, under the circumstances that she would sign documents and appear on camera denying that she had been tortured and subject to sexual harassment whilst imprisoned. This news comes from her brother, who tweeted that - "our initial agreement was that she will sign the document in which she will deny she had been tortured. And that's why we remained silent in the past few weeks," he also stated that "asking to appear on a video and to deny the torture doesn't sound like a realistic demand." Her sister, Lina,  even felt at risk tweeting that her sister had been tortured and sexually harassed. But, her other sister, Alia desperate to see her sister tweeted that her sister should accept the offer and tweeted - "Deny what happened even if you have to record it on camera, what is important is that you are with us, I miss you."

But, Loujain herself has rejected the offer, her brother Walid said - "When the state security asked her to sign the document for the video release, she immediately ripped the document. She told them by asking me to sign this document you are involved in the cover-up and you're simply trying (to) defend Saud Al-Qahtani who was overseeing the torture. This is the latest news to be found on her case, further showing the immense bravery and strength of this woman, Loujain is one I will admire for my entire lifetime. A woman who is so strong-willed and dedicated to her cause and will not be silenced. It is then the duty of myself and those who hear about Loujain to share her story and amplify her voice while, for the current moment, she cannot.