Mainstream media and online news outlets are in a frenzy over the fact both Google and Apple have declined to pull a controversial app from their respective stores.
The app is called Absher, and it is basically an e-portal for a ton of government services in Saudi Arabia.
Within the app, users can perform a large number of services such as renewal of passports, driver’s licenses, schedule appointments with Civil Affairs, and do a number of things involving dependents – the latter is what is causing the controversy.
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot travel without the permission of a male guardian. A male guardian is typically their husband, father, brother, or uncle.
Many Saudi Arabians, including men, do not enjoy the guardianship laws, as it is kind of a burden on everyone. If a woman wants to travel, her husband must appear with her at the proper government office and give his written consent. As you can imagine, lines and waiting times in the offices are pretty long. It’s a major hassle for everyone involved.
The Absher app allows guardians to give their consent to their dependents (wives, children, elderly parents) to travel in just a few presses. On one hand you could say it streamlines a patriarchal system. But then, the system is really at fault here. The app itself undoubtedly eases the burden of the guardianship laws, which have been progressing over time.
Politicians in the western world have decried the app for “oppressing women”, and called for Google and Apple to remove it from their stores. When Google and Apple did not remove it from their stores, the internet suddenly became filled with headlines like these:
- Google, siding with Saudi Arabia, refuses to remove widely-criticized government app which lets men track women and control their travel
- Google Reportedly Refuses to Remove Absher App, Which Lets Saudi Men Track Women in Their Family
- Controversial app to control Saudi women still on Play Store and App Store
And a hundred others. Seriously, just Google “Absher app”.
The problem here is that many of these articles are making the app sound way more evil than it is. In one of those article links, for example, the journalist writes:
“[Absher] … an abominable application developed by the government of Saudi Arabia with the sole purpose of controlling the women of that country.”
The article (and others) claim that the app “alerts” male guardians when women leave the country, or drive to the supermarket, or wash their hair during unapproved hours of the day. But they’re wrong – the app itself does not send any alerts. The government sends SMS text alerts when women use their passport at airports, which is not a part of the app. They did that before the app, because Saudis needed to put their SMS contact information on the paperwork.
The app is not for tracking women. It’s not a GPS spy app that reports a woman’s every location. It literally just allows male guardians to give their consent for women to travel (and revoke that consent or limit areas women can travel to, yes).
This (Saudi) Reddit user summarized it perfectly:
Basically, all the people calling for Google / Apple to remove the Absher app, in the name of women’s rights, are actually hurting women in Saudi. Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws are controversial, no doubt. But this app makes it easier for women to obtain the government-required consent from their male guardians to travel. Be mad at the guardian laws, not the app.
I’m not defending Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws. They need to be removed. But this app helps women travel a bit more freely, which is a kind of progression within the system. It cuts through the red-tape of a bad system, which is a kind of progress in the right direction.