Some Saudi women say an app that’s landed Google and Apple at the center of controversy can actually help women who want to escape the country. The app in question allows Saudi men to track and restrict the movements and travel of women over whom they have guardianship.
Under Saudi Arabia’s strict guardianship laws, all women are assigned a guardian–a husband, a son, a brother–and need to get their permission to do things like travel, work and get married. In 2015, the Saudi government launched an app called Abhser – which roughly translates to “yes sir” – that allows men to grant some of those permissions through clicks and swipes.
“If, today, my guardian decides ‘I don’t want her to travel anymore,’ he can just [do that] with a swipe, and when I get to the border they’ll turn me back,” said Raneen Bukhari, a 32-year-old curator and events producer who lives in Jubail in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
Bukhari says her experience with the app has been largely positive. Her husband, who is her guardian, allows her use the app to approve her own travel arrangements. But she acknowledges other women in Saudi Arabia are facing vastly different circumstances.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, are among those who have criticized Apple and Google for making the app available through the Apple app store and Google Play store. Last Monday, Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden sent a strongly worded letter to the companies’ top executives, asking them “immediately remove” the app.
Some women in Saudi Arabia, though, say the app can also be used to do the opposite of what critics have been saying.