BEIRUT, Lebanon – A Saudi mobile application that allows men to track and restrict women's movements in the kingdom, has been scrutinized this week with a US senator and rights group urging Apple and Google to remove it from the platforms, accusing technology giants facilitate gender discrimination.
Saudi "legislative laws" give women a legal status as to minors in many areas of their lives. Every Saudi woman, regardless of age, has a male "guardian", usually her father or husband, but sometimes her brother or son, who must give her permission to get her passport, have certain medical procedures or get married. [1
Absher, roughly translated as "yes gentleman", can be downloaded from both the Google Play store and Apple's app store, as critics say, making the technical companies complicated in the repression of Saudi women.
The effort to draw Absher from the platforms gained a boost this week when Senator Ron Wyden, the Democrat in Oregon, prayed so much in a letter to the two companies.
"It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy intends to restrict and repress Saudi women, but US companies should not activate or facilitate the Saudi government's patriarchy," Wyden wrote in the book published on Monday.
Addressing to Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, CEOs of Apple and Google, Wyden says the companies "made it easier for Saudi men to control their family members from the convenience of their smartphones and limit their movement."
He requested that their companies "be used by the Saudi government to enable abhorrent monitoring and control of women."
Representatives of Apple and the Saudi government did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A Google spokesperson confirmed that the company is considering the app to determine whether it complies with its policies.
Saudi Arabia has one of the world's most restrictive women's environments, although the country's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has pushed to loosen some restrictions since his father, King Salman, rose in the throne in 2015.  Since then, the kingdom has eased restrictions on women's dress, expanded the range of women's workforce fields, and began offering physical education classes for girls in public schools. Last year, Saudi Arabia lifted a long-standing ban on female drivers, a step as a major milestone.
But critics say that Saudi women cannot achieve equality as long as the kingdom maintains its laws of law. Saudi officials claim that such restrictions are rooted in their culture and supported by many in the realm.
Absher, which can be used by Saudi nationals and citizens of the realm are broader a web portal where both men and women can access a variety of public services, from paying traffic tickets to applying for new identification cards. The controls on women are just one of their features.
The suppression of Saudi women jumped into the headlines last month when an 18-year-old Saudi, Rahaf Alqunun, barricaded in a hotel room in Bangkok airport to avoid being returned to his family. She had slipped away from her family during a vacation in Kuwait and boarded a plane to Thailand, but was stopped at the airport. She was later awarded asylum in Canada.
Another Saudi woman who had fled the Kingdom of Australia secretly described with her father's phone to gain access to Absher and give herself permission to travel so that she could leave the country undiscovered.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have long launched campaigns to abolish the Legislative Act, but the measurement of Absher and the availability of Western technology platforms is new.
Hala Aldosary, a Saudi teacher and activist based in the United States, said that removing the app from Apple and Google could send an important message to executives like Prince Mohammed, who have sought out partnerships with global tech firms in their efforts to improve their economies.
"If the technical companies would say, You are oppressive," that would mean a lot, "Aldosary said.
But the removal of the app would not get rid of the country's legislative laws, she said and I can still change her female relatives status on the web or in public offices.
"The app is a means to an end, but it is not the end," she said. "But it makes business life easier."
When asked about Absher in An interview with National Public Radio on Monday, Cook of Apple said he had not heard of it.
"But obviously we will look at it if that's the case," he said.
But both companies have responded to similar campaigns to remove apps.
In December, Apple removed a religious app from the online store that portrayed being gay as "a disease" and "a sin" after a gay rights group campaigned against it, NBC News reported.