Saudi sisters call on Google, Apple to pull 'inhuman' app

The Absher app, seen here in a display at the Saudi Interior Ministry in Riyadh, gives access to a wide range of government services but also allows men to monitor and control female relatives' travel.
The Absher app, seen here in a display at the Saudi Interior Ministry in Riyadh, gives access to a wide range of government services but also allows men to monitor and control female relatives' travel.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TBILISI, Georgia • Two runaway Saudi sisters have urged Apple and Google to pull an "inhuman" app allowing men to monitor and control female relatives' travel, as it helps trap girls in abusive families.

Ms Maha and Ms Wafa al-Subaie, who are seeking asylum in Georgia after fleeing from their family, said Absher - a government e-services app - is bad for women as it supports Saudi Arabia's strict male guardian system.

"It gives men control over women," said Ms Wafa, 25. "They have to remove it," she added, referring to Google and Apple.

Absher, which is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores, allows men to update or withdraw permissions for female relatives to travel abroad and to get SMS updates if their passports are used, according to researchers.

Neither company was immediately available for comment.

Apple's chief executive Tim Cook said in February that he had not heard of Absher, but pledged to "take a look at it".

A free tool created by the Interior Ministry, Absher allows Saudis to access a wide range of government services, such as renewing passports, making appointments and viewing traffic violations.

 
 
 

Saudi women must have permission from a male relative to work, marry and travel under the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom's guardianship system, which has faced scrutiny following recent cases of Saudi women seeking refuge overseas.

The Subaie sisters, who stole their father's phone to get themselves passports and authorisation to fly to Istanbul, said they knew of dozens of other young women who were looking to escape abusive families.

Tech giants could help bring about change in Saudi Arabia if they pulled Absher or insisted that it allows women to organise travel independently - which would significantly hamper the guardianship system - they said.

"If (they) remove this application, maybe the government will do something," Ms Wafa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

The sisters' plea added to growing calls from rights groups, diplomats and US and European politicians for the app to be removed from online stores.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday that she had asked tech companies in Silicon Valley "tough questions" this month about the "threats" posed by apps like Absher, which allow Saudi men to restrict women's movement.

"Technology can, and should, be all about progress. But the hugely invasive powers that are being unleashed may do incalculable damage if there are not sufficient checks in place to respect human rights," she said in a statement.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2019, with the headline 'Saudi sisters call on Google, Apple to pull 'inhuman' app'. Print Edition | Subscribe