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How The Absher App Empowers Saudi Women

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Over the past several weeks, controversy erupted over the Saudis “Absher app” which women’s rights activists allege is a way for male guardians to track women’s movements in foreign airports and prevent them from fleeing the country.

The controversy over the app erupted  in a surprisingly coordinated way, in multiple Western publications shortly after incidents involving  the Saudi teenager Rahaf who received asylum from Canada, after claiming abuse by her family, and after several articles and human rights reports alleged abuses against women’s rights activists in Saudi jails, many of them arrested on the grounds of having links to foreign entities, which may have funded or encouraged some of their activities.

Members of U.S. Congress have pressured Apple and Google to remove the apps from their servers, with 14 additional members adding to the choir in the last week of February. The pressure campaign claims that by hosting the app, Apple and Google are “accomplices in the oppression of Saudi women”. Time magazine described this app as a “woman-tracking app“. CNN and other mainstream publications likewise repeated claims by human rights defenders, reiterating the message that US companies should not be facilitating the controversial guardianship system in Saudi Arabia. No US publication, however, bothered citing to the recent article in Saudi Arab news, which provides a comprehensive description of what the Absher app actually is – a tool to facilitate various government services and to eliminate red tape.

Reluctant to rely on information from a single Saudi news source, the author undertook to conduct a private investigation into these allegations. She started by taking the tour of the Saudi government website and the app, easily accessible in Arabic and translatable to English. The description of the app is as follows:

It is an electronic system launched by the Saudi Ministry of interior to facilitate most of the citizens and residents to conduct transactions on passports, Traffic and Civil Affairs and other related service through the portal of the system, which is named as “Absher” without the need to go to review the Department of Passports or other MOI departments to save time and speed in performance and facilitate procedures for citizens and residents . The system aims to reduce the number of users to manage passports and other related services such traffic and civil affairs and provide the service electronically through the Internet application to accommodate the users and to link all sectors of government electronically to make transactions easily at any time, and to reduce the phenomenon of fraud.

The system provides the service free of charge without paying any additional fees, on 24/7 Basis at any time and any place, this service aim to reduce congestion on waiting time for the users to visit any of the MOI departments and speed the performance Services are as follows:

Passport Department -Visa services -Id resident issuance -I d resident renewal -Travel permit -Passport renewal -Passport issuance -Exit visa -Exit-re-entry Visa -Extend visit visa -Dependent services -Passport information -Address information -Public query fingerprints and many more.
Traffic -Vehicle services -Vehicle registration services -driving license renewal –Traffic violation -Driving license information -Insurance validity
Civil affairs -My information -Report of missing documents. -Introduce dependent services -Hajj Eligibility. All of these services are online linked with other government agencies and banks to better the services of the citizens and residents.

Overall, there are dozens, if not hundreds of e-government services, which can be conveniently dealt with online. It is the first such system of the kind.

Imagine getting your driver’s license renewed online within minutes, instead of having to spend hours – if not all day – at the DMV!

The app serves a wide variety of constituents – men, women, and children. The author made written inquiries with regards to the controversy, and received responses from dozens of Saudi based men and women of different ages.  One female user described how the app helps her 70 year old mother make appointments related to senior services without having to leave the house. Other users described being able to handle last minute passport renewal for their children or for themselves.

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The overwhelming majority was particularly enthusiastic about not having to spend all day dealing with vehicle-related services. Several dozen people expressed surprise that none of the Western media has described any of these applications of the system, much less taken the time to interview regular Saudis who use it. That information is public, readily, available, and the response rate to my inquiry showed that it is widely used by a spectrum of people from all over the country.

What about the controversy?

The reference that the activists are all up and arms about it is to a category called “Dependent services”.

Although women of any age could technically be considered dependents, so are men under 21, and sometimes even elderly individuals are registered under this category.

Dependents cannot be tracked the country, but the app allows parents to check on the status of their minor children in international airports, largely for security reasons. However, the description of this system has been inaccurately reported in the Western media. The app is not suited for “giving permission” for women to travel. There are 35,000 female students who have traveled abroad to study this past year alone.  Rather, it is a security mechanism to ensure that the traveler, particularly a minor, has arrived at his or her destination safely. As with any location device, the system can be abused by abusive people; however, the central purpose of this app has nothing to do with the guardianship system or its enforcement and rather addressed an assortment of practical every day needs for men and women.

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Absher app – login page

Removing the app from Apple and Google servers would accomplish nothing other than making life harder for 30 million Saudi citizens. It is an e-government service, and is such available on other servers and online. Removing the app does not cancel the government service. The author asked female users regarding the potential abuse of the “dependent services” by abusive guardians to prevent women from fleeing the country or to track them abroad.

One of the users explained that the app itself, contrary to claims by the human rights activists, cannot do anything to stop anyone from leaving the country. 

The guardianship system, as was explained to me, is controversial, but it is also on the way out, increasingly eroded each year in terms of enforcement, and incrementally unravelled by the government. For instance, earlier this year,  the government gave women permission to make their own determination regarding childbirth procedures, and no guardian can interfere. However, one female Saudi resident explained that the system has not been widely enforced to begin with, and in her experience, when she last gave birth in 2011, no one even asked her for a permission slip.

Furthermore, it appears that the most stringent enforcement of the guardianship system, and the most restrictive on female travel is in the tribal areas of the country, where the society in general tends to be overwhelmingly conservative.  The stories of young women fleeing from their families most frequently comes from these areas and has nothing to do with the government enforcement of the system. 

However, to address the cultural discrepancies, the government institutionalized a Citizenship system of educating people from tribal areas with an aim towards integrating them into national system and encouraging more individual thinking. 

Further checks on the guardianship system include the ability of individual woman to challenge specific applications in court. If her guardian is not able to make a compelling case for imposing a particular restriction, the judge will rule in the claimant’s favor. None of that may sound satisfying to the ears of the human rights defenders abroad, but providing inaccurate or misleading information about beneficial services does anything to assist young women in restrictive environments.

The best way to empower women is to give them as much access to services that they can use as possible, and to minimize obstacles, which is what this app does. In many ways, it overcomes additional hindrances by restrictive guardians rather than enforces them as it grants women access to vital services online without having to count on a guardian to accompany them to any government agency. Furthermore, counterintuitively, to the extent that some guardians may be concerned about allowing women to travel, this app gives them a level of reassurance and may actually help women who would otherwise not be able to leave the country at all to build a level of trust with their concerned families.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. By failing to provide accurate information about the way reforms, including this app, empower and facilitate ability to work and access social integration for millions of women in Saudi Arabia, human rights defenders actually harm the very people they allegedly are trying to help.

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Absher App

After reading scores of articles on the subject of the Absher app, the author concluded that the human rights defenders sited in this article had no interest in talking to Saudis; they were not interested in the opinions of Saudi women about this app. Very few Saudi women were interviewed; the ones that were cited were not specifically asked about the totality of usefulness for this app.  Article after article related to the Absher add is dependent entirely on descriptions provided by Western human rights organizations, and leave out literally every aspect of this app except for the “dependent” function, and even then it fails to explain how that function works.

This is a condescending attitude that does nothing to address the issues women are facing and only creates distance between Westerners and Saudi women themselves. Having talked to a number of them about this app, as well as other issues, the author heard from the women that the sort of one-sided publicity as has been generated by activists around this app does not help unravel the system, but only generates concern about unwelcome condescending foreign meddling.

This dishonest interventionism, a number of them states, can only stiffles innovation; the Westerners, as a few particularly bewildered and outraged female users of the app explained, seem uninterested in Saudi women and what they actually want; they are using this app as an excuse to make themselves look good, even if their actions ultimately denigrate the growing number of highly educated and highly capable Saudi women who welcome innovation and technological progress in the country where around 20 percent of the country is between the ages of 15 and 24.

The reality of life in Saudi Arabia is complicated and worth understanding in depth. However, shallow, one-sided, regressive articles bashing the entire country and presumptuously seeking to liberate it from its own technical innovation, entrepreneurship, and accomplishments will not get these activists very far.

The White Man’s Burden should be left in the dustbin of history where it belongs; the many Saudis the author have spoken to would welcome an open-minded bilateral engagement instead. Many of them are quite proud of breakthroughs such as this app, which make Saudi Arabia quite possibly the first country in the world, to eliminate so much bureaucracy and provide so many people access to so many government services so quickly.

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They are excited to share their accomplishments with the world, and to work with other entrepreneurs to benefit humanity with other creative and innovative developments. Instead of being embraced for progress, however, young Saudi men and women are faced with dehumanizing, patronizing, and deceptive finger-wagging, which seems to be more concerned with stifling growing competition from Saudi app developers than with helping Saudi women achieve real progress through active and positive engagement in their own fate and constructive, problem-solving dialogue with their counterparts abroad. 

The obsession with claiming credit for anything positive that occurs in the Kingdom by Western “saviors” has not served the young Saudi people well. Many view the interventionism over the app that has already helped so many and has inspired younger people to break technical glass ceilings on their own as yet another way of stereotyping Arabs, another illustration of soft bigotry of low expectations. The general message the author got after talking with at least thirty people about this app is if Americans and others want to be helpful, they should start by being honest and not feeding the press deceptive, one sided stories about their society.

By Irina Tsukerman, human rights and national security attorney based in New York. She is writing on geopolitics and US foreign policy for a variety of American and Middle Eastern publications.

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