The Absher App: Saudi Men Controlling Women’s Travel

In Saudi Arabia, citizens and residents can use Absher. It is an online government platform, to access Interior Ministry services. Absher comes as an online portal, as wel as a mobile app available for iPhones and Android phones. It offers e-services including renewing passports, applying for ID cards, paying traffic tickets, applying for or renewing migrant workers’ visas, and obtaining ‘hajj’ or pilgrimage permits. The Absher app has been downloaded 4.2M times from Apple’s App Store so far. But it has received a lot criticism, the question is why?

What is Absher?

Absher is a an online platfor and free mobile app launched by the Saudi government in 2015. Available on the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, Absher is described as “the official individuals eServices Mobile Application that provide the services of Absher portal in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” and is listed under the “Productivity” category on both sites. Users of the app can use it to complete day-to-day tasks such as checking their mail, registering vehicles, booking government appointments and applying for visas.

What is so controversial about it?

The app allows male users to log the information of their dependents (women and children) and to grant or deny permission for them to travel at the click of a button. Specifically, it means that male users can register women’s names and passport numbers, select how many journeys they can take and how long they can travel for.

Under the male guardianship law in Saudi Arabia, every woman must have approval from a male custodian in order to travel. Many people have argued that allowing men to grant this approval through the app normalizes and reinforces the opressive patriarchal system.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden wrote a letter to the CEOs of Google and Apple, demanding that they take down Absher from the app stores.

“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.”

That is not the only criticism they got, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urged Google and Apple to assess the app’s use to determine whether it facilitates discrimination and abuse. Saudi Arabia researcher for Amnesty International, Dana Ahmed, called it “another example of how the Saudi Arabian government has produced tools to limit women’s freedoms,” adding that giving men the ability to track women “curtails their movement and once again highlights the disturbing system of discrimination under the guardianship laws.”

Despite criticism by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there was no direct response to the requests of taking it down. However, Cook did respond when asked about the app on National Public Radio.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has pledged to get to the bottom of a Saudi government app hosted on the App Store, which was labelled “abhorrent” by a US Senator for helping men control where women travel.

Cook spoke to National Public Radio (NPR) on Tuesday and was asked about Absher, a mostly-benign government app which has been criticised for features letting Saudi men control where women travel.

“I haven’t heard about it,” Cook told NPR. “But obviously we’ll take a look at it if that’s the case.”