Absher: The Controversial App
Sat, 10 Aug 2019 || By Rachmadita K

Absher is an internet-based service available in smartphone application and website which allows citizens of and residents in Saudi Arabia to use a variety of governmental services. The main aim of Absher is to simplify processes the citizens used to take when requesting official service. Absher provides all traditional and paper needing service including Civil Registry, Passports Directorate, Traffic Bureau, Public security, Housing, Pilgrimage, Banking, etc. at least, more than 160 services are available in Absher[1]. Overall, it might be said that Absher changed live of KSA’s (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) citizens as an individual, residents, and business owners. Absher is making their life as a citizen easier because they can always have connected with governmental service just by a single app[2].

Unfortunately, with all these convenience, efficient, and effective services, some people think that there is a threat to one of Absher’s feature bounded by Guardianship Law in KSA. Under the Guardianship Law, a woman must have a male guardian (wali), typically a father, brother, husband, or uncle, anyone who is in her mahram. In many cases, a woman must always ask for permission to their Guardian over any service she is about to access such as applying for school, obtain a passport, going abroad, have specific medical procedures, or even getting married[3]. This phenomenon has sparked another discourse in public: is KSA digitally surveilling their female citizen?

Figure 1. The Absher homepage, which shows how many women man is guarded and how many children a man has. It also stores much of citizen’s daily information[4].

 

Digital Surveillance on Woman?

This controversial feature brought by Absher is a service which allows the woman’s guard to get a notification message when the guarded woman is caught to be using her passport at the airport. This began with a feature which gives a guardian full authority to decide how many journeys a woman can take and how long a woman can travel for. This feature might seem nothing harms when their guards is the closest man to the woman, when both can discuss each other business as a family caring for each other, most of the guard is a woman's relative[5]. This feature is then viewed to be having both of positive and negative impacts, although a lot of critics came for the second implication. On the one side, this feature could be an enhancement of women’s security as it can be the form of protection to prevent a crime such as kidnapping or women trafficking.

Figure 2. Absher Passport Directorate: Guardian’s Permit.

 

Figure 3. A list of journeys taken on a passport. All listed on Absher and accessed real-time by the guardian.

Meanwhile, on the other side we cannot dismiss the fact that there is also the chance of assaults on women. The more prominent authorities the guardian had, comes with the bigger possibility of violence supported by the vertical power-relation in between. The feature on Absher which enables the guardian to get notified when a woman under his guardianship is about to use her passport at an airport without his permission is tend to be supporting the absolute power of a man, while the reason behind her attempt to escape is not even taken into account. This suspicious procedure is then generating many objections, particularly from human rights perspective.

The International Protests

Several institutions and figures are protesting on the Absher and its controversial feature. Starting from The Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, to some legislators in the US. Their main issues are the accusations of surveillance on a woman, eradicating gender apartheid, and enhancing a woman's freedom[6].

These actors are already protesting to the tech company who are still making Absher available on their platform: Google with its Play store and Apple with its Apple store[7]. These two most prominent tech companies are headquartered in San Francisco, US. Their response to the protests remains the same after all: refusing to take down the app. Both of the companies claimed that they are not violating any rule. Surprisingly, they also got full support from the KSA Government and Citizens to keep the Absher app available on their platforms[8].

This phenomenon illustrates that the leadership pattern on a country implied a different order of technology usage. On one side, the monarchy power successfully made their policy applied effectively on answering their citizens' problem by creating a smooth and simplified process of governmental service: making the Absher available. While at the same time, the monarchy is also keeping their strong law enforcement, seen from the full applications of Guardianship Law on the Absher.[j1] 

Conclusion

The accusations of violating the rights of Saudi Arabian women were not uncommon. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is already well-known for its ‘cultural-based’ regulations towards gender segregation along with Sharia Law. The monarch government with its central authority is playing their main role on maintaining their traditional culture existed time by time.

However, by today, the commodification of policy has somehow become possible by the fact that yesterday the women in KSA are finally allowed to have a driving license and drive a car after the ban was lifted by King Salman on 24 June 2018[9], although the authorization from guardian is still required when creating a driving license. This ban-lifting comes after long deliberating struggles and campaigns from Saudis women with the support of International world.

Obviously, such policy transformation is not going to happen without the allowance of the central authority. KSA is now changing its perspective, this argument is supported by the crowned prince of KSA, Mohammed bin Salman, who is catching the world’s attention for his move on “Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030”, a long-term development agenda in KSA highlighting on three main topics: (1) A Vibrant Society, (2) A Thriving Economy, and (3) An Ambitious Nation[10]. This vision departs from the willing of central authority to no longer depending its economy on oil industry and divert it to human resources-based economic development, which would involve both men and women on development agenda.

Editor: Janitra Haryanto

Read another article written by Rachmadita K.

 

[1]Rawan Radwan. (2019). How ‘Absher’ app liberates Saudis from government bureaucracy. Available at: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1453341/saudi-arabia [Accessed 6 March 2019]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Margaret Coker. (2018). How Guardianship Laws Still Control Saudi Women. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/world/middleeast/saudi-women-guardianship.html [Accessed 7 March 2019]

[4] Bill Bolstock. (2019). Saudi Arabia runs a huge, sinister online database of women that men use to track them and stop them from running away. Available at: https://www.thisisinsider.com/absher-saudi-website-men-control-women-stop-escape-2019-1  [Accessed 10 March 2019]

[5] Bill Bolstock. 2019. Google, siding with Saudi Arabia, refuses to remove the widely-criticized government app which lets men track women and control their travel. Available at: https://www.thisisinsider.com/absher-google-refuses-to-remove-saudi-govt-app-that-tracks-women-2019-3 [Accessed 10 March 2019]

[6] Bill Bolsctock, Op. Cit.

[7] Andrew Liptak. 2019. Google won’t pull controversial Saudi Arabian app from Play store, Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2019/3/3/18248956/google-absher-wont-pull-controversial-saudi-arabian-app-womens-rights [Accessed 10 March 2019]

[8] Bill Bolstock, Op.Cit. 

[9]Martin Chulov. 2017. Saudi Arabia to allow women to obtain driving licenses. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/26/saudi-arabias-king-issues-order-allowing-women-to-drive [Accessed 30 March 2019]

[10] Information about Saudi Arabia’s Vision can be accessed through its official website at : https://vision2030.gov.sa/en