The technology has been in use for years but was enhanced after the Rahaf affair. If a woman tries to evade her guardian’s control, a text message is sent. Every year, about a thousand try to leave the country. Most are captured and risk being killed by the family. A few succeed, like Shahad al-Mohaimeed.
Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Saudi Arabia has created an immense electronic database on the country's women to enable their male relatives - father, husband, son - to track their movements and prevent them from fleeing.
Technology is thus used to crack down on women fighting for their freedom and the rights. For human rights groups, the monitoring system, whose existence came to light thanks to an investigative report by Insider, is simply an extension of the extant male guardianship system.
In fact, the database has existed for years and was recently reinforced, following the case of 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who fled her family after abandoning Islam, for fear of being killed.
Stuck for days in Thailand waiting for a visa to Australia, her story became frontpage news all over the world. After a while, the United Nations intervened granting her refugee status and Canada accepted to take her, angering Saudi Arabia.
Male guardianship is a form of gender apartheid, which binds women to a male guardian. It applies to what women do online and in social media, as well as in real life.
The digitised guardianship system works thanks to the use of a mobile app called Absher, Arabic for preacher, which also allows people to pay fines or renew licenses, interacting directly with the Ministry of the Interior.
The system – little known among Western media – contains a registry of the country’s women and the means to ban them from travelling abroad or seize them should they try to escape.
The country’s borders are in fact integrated with the Absher alert system. Whenever a passport is used (authorised or not), a text message is sent.
This way male guardians can determine when, from which airports and for how long women travel, giving them the means to trap women in Saudi Arabia if they wish.
At least a thousand women try to flee Saudi Arabia every year. experts told Insider that text alerts have enabled many men to catch family members before they make it out.
One of the many stories cited by Insider is that of Shahad al-Mohaimeed who took advantage of a family holiday at a Turkish tourist resort on the Black Sea to flee.
The young woman left the hotel in the middle of the night, after taking her relatives and guardians' cell phones to avoid being discovered.
Today she lives in Tbilisi, Georgia. "When we decide to leave," she explained, "we decide to put our lives on the line. Because if we don't succeed, our families are going to kill us. It's shameful to have a daughter leave."
"There is no support for the beaten," she added, "even when it's reported, police are always on the man's side."