NEWS
13/02/2019 11:13 AM IST

Saudi Arabia's Women-Tracking App Has Critics Coming For Google And Apple

The tech giants host a Saudi government-created app that allows male guardians to remotely control women's movements.

Under Saudi Arabia’s draconian guardianship system, every woman in the country is required to have a male guardian, who wields the power to make a wide array of decisions for her from birth to death.

Absher, a Saudi government-created app, makes that even easier with modern technology ― and it’s available through American tech giants Google and Apple.

The companies have come under fire in recent days for hosting Absher, which can impede attempts by women in abusive home environments to flee. 

The app also allows users to access certain run-of-the-mill government services, like renewing a driver’s license. What alarms human rights activists, though, is how men can use it to specify when and where women may travel, rescinding permissions with just a few taps. They can also start receiving text messages when their wife or daughter swipes a passport, as Business Insider reported in detail earlier this month. 

Those who are caught running away can face death at the hands of their family.

Screenshots of Saudi Arabia's Absher app as seen on iTunes. 

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are calling for the app’s removal.

“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 reform,” a spokesperson for Amnesty International said in a statement to HuffPost.

In an open letter on Monday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also called on Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai to immediately remove the “abhorrent” Absher app from their respective services. 

“It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women, but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy,” Wyden wrote.

Google and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

The issue of abuse in some Saudi households was highlighted recently when the story of teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun made international headlines. Alqunun escaped while her family slept in a hotel room in Kuwait earlier this year. She flew to Bangkok, where authorities seized her passport, prompting her to barricade herself in an airport hotel room in order to prevent deportation. 

Alqunun said her family abused her, describing how male relatives beat and locked her in her room for six months as punishment for cutting her hair. She was granted asylum last month in Canada, where she has begun a new life.