Saudi Arabia: government’s Absher App used to control women’s travels

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In Saudi Arabia, citizens can use a mobile app called Absher to access Interior Ministry services. However, male guardians use it to monitor and keep track of women’s foreign travels.

The application is provided by the government and it offers e-services such as renewing passports, applying for ID cards, paying traffic tickets, applying for or renewing migrant workers’ visas, and obtaining hajj (pilgrimage) permit. The platform is available both through a website and a mobile app on Google and Apple mobile app store.

Although Absher was meant to help citizens access government services, it is also frequently used as a means of control by male guardians to monitor women and children. Guardians can use the app to approve or deny permission to travel abroad and obtain a passport.

Human Rights Watch described the app and the consequent issues its usage generates. Absher itself is not able to track women in real time, although it keeps records of the travels made. Thanks to a travel log function, male guardians can view all the trips made out of Saudi Arabia as well as the destination reached and the dates of travel. In order to travel outside the country any woman needs the approval of her guardian, whether it be her father, brother, husband and even son. With the app guardians can give permission for a single trip, multiples trips or unlimited travel. Similarly, they can give the approval for the renewal of their passports.

As a matter of fact, there have been cases in which women have been prevented from leaving the country due to the will of their guardians. Thus, woman face concerning travel restrictions which have several consequences also on their access to the job market because of their inability to travel.

On the other hand, some women reported to Human Rights Watch that Absher app improved their situation because it made the procedure to get a travel permission easier than it was before. Moreover, others claimed that the app may help women escape by changing the travel permission settings on their guardians’ phone. It is still unclear how many women succeeded in escaping, however there have been reported at least three successful cases.

In addition, the app brings about further issues related to the kafala system. In Saudi Arabia, indeed, all migrant workers need to request an exit permit from their employer to leave the country. Namely, the app enables Saudis who sponsor foreign nationals living in the country to decide whether their foreign workers, spouses, or children can leave the country.

As the application is available both on the Google and Apple mobile app stores, the two companies have a responsibility in the case. On 25 April 2019, two Saudi sisters Maha and Wafa al-Subaie who flew Saudi Arabia and are seeking asylum in Georgia, condemned the app along with the guardianship system and called upon Google and Apple to stop hosting the application on their app stores. Furthermore, the non-binding United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UN Guiding Principles) states that businesses “should carry out human rights due diligence, […] including assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the findings, tracking responses, and communicating how impacts are addressed.”

Lately, the representatives of the two companies have said that they would review Absher app to evaluate it and determine whether it violates their terms of service.

Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch remarks that even if the companies would stop hosting the application, the male guardianship system will not come to an end as it is based on an Interior Ministry regulation.

The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) strongly disapprove the male guardians’ usage of Absher app to control women and restrict their freedom of movement. Furthermore, it calls upon the abolition of the male guardianship system.