Over the past week, Apple and Google have been severely criticised for offering a Saudi Arabian government application called Absher on their respective app marketplaces. The application, launched in 2015, facilitates the ease of access to Saudi-government provided services by those within the country and reduces inefficient bureaucracy in day-to-day government functions. However, the application also lets men restrict the movement of women under their guardianship by revoking the woman’s right to travel with a few simple touches of their phones. Of course, Absher is not the real problem here—it is the kingdom’s repressive male guardianship system. And the only reason why the application is making headlines right now, despite it being launched four years ago, is the increased international scrutiny on Saudi Arabia following the Jamal Khasoggi murder and the Rahaf Mohammed case, , in which a Saudi teenager successfully managed to escape the clutches of the dreaded guardianship system and get asylum in Canada
The increased coverage that the country’s repressive gender laws are receiving is indeed good news, but a majority of the reporting concerning Absher also lacks recognition of the other side of the story. The Guardian cited a tweet from a Saudi woman explaining that, while the application facilitates the tracking of women, its also reduces the time needed to file visa papers for women who do get to travel—a reasoning that was used to further restrict women before. That said, even if it does serve an important purpose, a waiver can be presented in many non-digital but verifiable forms—even if this comes at the cost of some more time consumed, it is still preferable to a scenario where the app can be used to track women’s movement. The ‘dilemma’ over Absher’s positive fallout isn’t really a problem, given the workaround. But attacking an app will be of no help. What is needed is eliminating the unjust practices that continue to marginalise and harm women and social and political reforms that bring an end to the deep-rooted patriarchal understanding of women’s position in social hierarchy that Wahhabism promotes.