The Saudi government Absher app on a phone in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, which both allows people to pay traffic fines online, but also facilitates male guardians’ granting or denying women permission to travel.

© 2019 Amr Nabil/AP Photo
(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s mobile app Absher is used to prevent Saudi women from leaving their country without a male relative’s permission. In a question-and-answer document, Human Rights Watch explains how male guardians use the mobile app to control women’s foreign travel, and employers to control the travel of migrant workers, and examines the role of Google and Apple, which host Absher in their mobile app stores.

Saudi Arabia should immediately end its restrictive and discriminatory travel restrictions on women and migrants, Human Rights Watch said. Google and Apple should publicly call on Saudi Arabia to end the male guardianship system. They should update their terms of service to prohibit apps expressly designed to violate rights and make every effort to mitigate human rights harm before making such apps available.

“The mobile app Absher is a modern tool for an outdated and repressive system of control over women,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia should end its humiliating and discriminatory requirement for women to have male guardian permission to travel abroad.”

Saudi Arabia requires women from birth until death to have a male guardian – usually a father, husband, brother, or even a son – to obtain a passport, travel abroad, marry, undertake higher education, or be released from prison.

The Absher portal is a government e-service that allows Saudis and residents to renew passports, obtain ID cards, and apply for or renew migrant workers’ visas. It is provided on a website and a mobile app available on Google and Apple mobile app stores. However, Absher also enables male guardians to refuse or allow women and children to travel abroad or obtain a passport.  

While Absher does not track women’s movements inside or outside the country, it does allow male guardians to view all the trips in and out of Saudi Arabia that their female dependents make, showing destination countries and dates of travel.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which male guardians have prevented women from travelling abroad, including to study or work. Requiring guardian permission for women to travel abroad creates barriers that makes it harder for women to get a job and to advance professionally, and heightens the difficulties for women exposed to family violence to escape abuse.

Absher also enables Saudis who sponsor foreign nationals to control whether their foreign workers, foreign spouses, or foreign children can leave the country. They can do this by specifying when they must return to Saudi Arabia on exit and re-entry visas and by approving or denying their final exit visas.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the region that maintains a requirement that all migrant workers must request an exit permit from their employer to leave the country. This is part of the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrant workers’ legal status to their employer-sponsor, and which exposes migrant workers to abuse and exploitation.

Human Rights Watch does not currently advocate for removal of the Absher app as that could lead to unintended negative consequences for some women who may surreptitiously change travel permissions or halt text message alerts on their male guardian’s phone. Human Rights Watch has documented at least three cases in which Saudi women were able to flee the country after they obtained their father’s mobile phone password and changed the Absher travel permission settings.

Google and Apple should strongly urge the Saudi government to end the male guardianship system, including travel restrictions abroad. Companies should always assess apps to determine whether they may undermine or violate rights, with extra scrutiny for apps developed or sponsored by governments. They should also revise their terms of service to prohibit apps expressly designed to violate rights and make every effort to mitigate any human rights harm before making such apps available.

Concerned governments should press the Saudi authorities to end the male guardianship and kafala systems, including the exit permit requirement for migrant workers and residents in the country.

“Saudi authorities allow male guardians and employers to trap women and migrants in the country,” Begum said. “Such control over people’s lives facilitates domestic violence and abusive labor conditions.”