We take a look at a tracking App used by men to track their wives… a Saudi government system called “Absher.” A sprawling database of women in Saudi Arabia that men use to bar them from travel.
Absher has multiple meanings in Arabic, including “your request is granted,” “good tidings,” or “at your service.” It is the state-run e-service that contains an online expression of Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male-guardianship laws.
The Absher system — little-discussed in Western media — contains a log of women in Saudi Arabia and the means to bar them from travel or catch them trying to leave without permission.
Many of Absher’s functions are benign and would not be out of place in any local or national government online portal. You can use it to pay parking fines, register a newborn baby, or renew a driver’s license.
Vitally, Saudi men can also use this site to specify when and where women are allowed to fly out of the country and grant or revoke travel permission with a few clicks, rendering specific airports or destinations off-limits. Men can also enable an automatic SMS feature, which texts them when a woman uses her passport at a border crossing or airport check-in.
At least 1,000 women try to flee Saudi Arabia each year, and experts told the writer (INSIDER) that the text alerts had enabled many men to catch family members before they make it out.
How Absher works
INSIDER spoke with activists and Saudi refugees about Absher, the computer system that makes fleeing directly from Saudi Arabia so difficult. They also obtained screenshots from the site that show how it works. Absher is Arabic by default, but it can also be accessed in English.
This image shows the main Absher dashboard where male Saudi guardians add “dependants,” meaning women and children:
“Total Dependants Inside” refers to women (and children) who are inside Saudi Arabia.
“Total Dependents Outside” refers to women outside Saudi Arabia, like those studying abroad at a university or on vacation.
A second screenshot, from deeper inside the website, shows a screen for managing travel permissions. Men can specify numerous journeys women are allowed to take or specify a time period in which they can travel.
Four options are displayed for travel permissions:
- A single journey anywhere.
- A single journey between two specific airports.
- Multiple journeys.
- Permission to travel until the passport expires (a maximum of five years).
Before Absher, Saudi women needed a paper consent form with a guardian’s signature, known as a “yellow slip,” to pass through customs.
Absher digitized the system, which can give a detailed readout of every journey somebody has made. (Men can view their own travel history as well as those of children and women in their family.)
Here’s a screenshot of the passport section on Absher that shows the travel log of a registered passport.
The alert system is one of the main reasons women trying to flee Saudi Arabia get caught, because it tips their guardians off while they can still be apprehended, according to Dr. Taleb al-Abdulmohsen, a Saudi refugee who fled to Germany.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, also told INSIDER about the SMS alerts and corroborated al-Abdulmohsen’s story.
When the messages were made compulsory in 2012, Saudis criticized them on social media. The Saudi author and journalist Badriya al-Bishr said: “The authorities are using technology to monitor women. This is technology used to serve backwardness in order to keep women imprisoned.” Nonetheless, they continued.
INSIDER located copies of several alerts sent by the Ministry of Interior, which were shared in 2012 when the system was still a novelty.
They all display on phone screens as coming from MOIJawazat. MOI stands for Ministry of Interior, and Jawazat is the name of the Saudi passport and visa office.
This one alerted a guardian that a Saudi businesswoman named Sarah al-Ayed had used her passport to leave Saudi Arabia by plane. It says: “Sarah number ##### departed from King Abdulaziz Airport on 12-11-2012.”
—Sarah Ayed Al Ayed (@Sarah_AlAyed) November 14, 2012
Sarah’s guardian was also alerted to another journey she made later in November from the same airport.
—Sarah Ayed Al Ayed (@Sarah_AlAyed) November 24, 2012
This message, sent to Hassan al-Hashemi about his wife Muna, says: “Muna left king AbdulAziz airport on 14-11-2012. Number ****3551.”
And this one, sent to a man named Khalid al-Shnanah says: “Exit permit for Sala number ***7698 expires 25-11-2012.” This most likely refers to permission a guardian gave to a women to travel for a fixed amount of time.
This string of four messages documents two women, called Danah and Fatima, both listed as dependents under a guardian’s page on Absher, leaving and returning to Saudi Arabia from Bahrain over the King Fahad causeway bridge.
—MAHA (@mahalbuali) November 14, 2012
The messages say:
Danah (number 8010) has exited via the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Fatima (number 4734) has exited via the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Fatima (number 4734) has entered via the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Danah (number 8010) has entered through the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
In response to criticism posted on social media, the government made SMS alerts optional in 2014. Later that year officials claimed to have suspended them, but many believe the system still operates.
Coogle, of Human Rights Watch, told INSIDER: “The text alerts are still happening and that’s why they find out so quickly” when women try to escape. Two other experts corroborated this.
Fooling the system
Women can use the Absher app too — to manage the day-to-day tasks mentioned previously — but crucially, they don’t have access to the travel permission page.
Everyone knows about Absher in Saudi Arabia, al-Abdulmohsen said, and young women are now using a common technique to try to escape.
Saudi women steal their guardian’s phone, reset the password, and get a new one in minutes, he said. A few seconds later they have given themselves permission to leave.
“But this is dangerous. If the guardian is thorough, he will regularly check the status of his dependants,” he said.
Yasmine Mohammed, a prominent women’s-rights commentator, told INSIDER some women changed the phone number linked to their guardian’s Absher account so the alert SMS message would come to their phone instead.
This page on Absher shows how to cancel travel permissions on a dependent’s passport:
Even after navigating the technical side, the journey remains difficult and risky. Refugees, including Rahaf Mohammed, cite the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, who made it to the Philippines in April 2017 but was apprehended by her family and taken back.
About a week after she was caught, Bloomberg reported she was being held in a Saudi correctional facility. Her current whereabouts are unknown.
‘Social media is showing women getting out, smiling, surviving’
Despite cautionary tales like this, the support networks between women are strengthening, and escape attempts are on the rise, the experts told INSIDER.
There are numerous forums and groups where women and girls shared tips for escaping. “There used to be no girls paying attention to asylum, now they all know about asylum, and they know about escape plans. Now they have more chance of being accepted abroad and have more knowledge of the process and evidence to get asylum.”
Yasmine Mohammed, the women’s-rights commentator, agrees. “Social media is showing women getting out, smiling, surviving, happy, encouraging other women to get out,” she told INSIDER. “It’s falsifying the rhetoric Saudi women have been hearing all these years.”
Credit: The complete article including the story of women trying to escape is written by Bill Bostock at https://www.insider.com/absher-saudi-website-men-control-women-stop-escape-2019-1