App under investigation by Apple for possible human rights violation

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

BY NADIA BABAR ’19

As of February 2019, an app allowing men to prohibit women under their guardianship from leaving the country of Saudi Arabia has been downloaded 4.2 million times. Absher is a smartphone app available to citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia, providing them access to a number of governmental services. Available to download both from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store, the app is run by the Saudi Interior Ministry and offers a number of convenient services, such as the option to renew a driver’s license or pay a parking fine, according to Insider.

But Absher also allows men to monitor and dictate the international movements of their ‘dependents,’ most commonly their wives or daughters. Prior to the invention of Absher, women attempting to leave Saudi Arabia needed a permission slip signed by their guardian to pass through customs. Now, the digital service provides travel logs and histories of anyone listed as a dependent by the user.

Recently, the app has come under scrutiny for potentially violating human rights. According to the South China Morning Post, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke to NPR and said that he was not previously aware of the app’s existence, but would be taking a look into it. The app has also drawn attention from political figures, with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) — who insisted that both Apple and Google remove the app immediately — tweeting that it “promotes abusive practices against women.” Kees Verhoeven, a Dutch MP, also commented on the situation, commending Amnesty and Human Rights Watch for contacting Apple and Google and insisting they remove the app from their stores.

Some argue that the removal of Absher from app stores is merely akin to slapping a band-aid on a much larger problem. Getting rid of Absher doesn’t change Saudi Arabia’s laws, which impose strict sanctions upon women’s mobility. Arwa Mahdawi argued in an article for “The Guardian” that while withdrawing Absher may make a statement, it does nothing to tackle the root of the problem, which is Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal governmental system. “By all means let’s put pressure on Apple and Google to think more carefully about the impact of the apps they carry,” said Mahdawi. “But let’s not let politicians off the hook for their complicity in how Saudi Arabia’s women are treated.”

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