When in June last year Saudi Arabia lifted its decades-old ban on women driving, many thought that was a sign of the change to come—though plenty of those who are keen observers of the Royal Kingdom knew it was a PR stunt meant to sell Mohammed bin Salman to the Western world as a reformer.
It was hoped that this meant change for the better in the wake of grim statistics from The World Economic Forum's 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, which ranked Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries for gender parity.
Since 1957, Saudi Arabia has been the only country in the world in which women aren’t allowed to drive.
Ostensibly, the initiative to suspend the ban was taken by the Saudi king and the crown prince, in order to “modernize” Saudi society and to revamp the economy. But what’s really happened is simply a misdirection—a sleight of hand.
Introducing Absher--a Saudi government app that Saudi men can use to, among other things, track the women under their ‘sponsorship’.
Users of Absher, which has been available on platforms since 2015, can access many government services, related to visas, national IDs, traffic violations, and health insurance among other things. Those ‘other things’ include a feature which male guardians can use to decide whether their female dependents can travel abroad.
Though it’s been around for a few years already, it recently came under renewed scrutiny last by human rights activists and politicians after the asylum claim of Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed, now settled in Canada. She booked herself on a flight out of Kuwait to Thailand while visiting the country on a family vacation.
Critics of the app have urged U.S.-based platforms Apple and Google to remove it from their online stores. Both companies promised to investigate the claims. Critics argue that the app is just an extension of the repressive rules that restrict many aspects of everyday life for Saudi women.
On the other side, the app’s users—undoubtedly all male--believe that it is productive and that it saves them from onerous bureaucracy and ultimately makes travel easier for Saudi women.
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Even some Saudi woman, even though disliking the app itself, claim that having it makes their lives easier, according to media reports. Before the application came along granting travel was a huge bureaucratic burden for male guardians, and they used this to keep them at home.
Aside from lifting the ban on women driving, the crown prince has also ostensibly initiated other reforms in order “to strengthen the role of women in Saudi society”.
These include more public sector job openings for women, an apparent relaxation of the strict dress code, allowing them to join the military, visit sports arenas and cinemas…
But here is the other side of that reality: It also comes amid an intensified crackdown on activists who campaigned for the right to drive.
More than a dozen female activists who had pushed for the right to drive were rounded up and put in jail. At least nine of them remain in prison.
In addition to not being able to travel freely, Saudi woman still are not allowed to open bank accounts, get passports, get married (or divorced) … without the permission of a male guardian.
As modern technology continues to make the Saudi man’s life easier, yet another regulation was introduced in January this year, which will see Saudi courts notify women by text message when they get divorced.
The measure approved by the justice ministry appears to be aimed at curbing cases of men secretly ending marriages without informing their wives.
By Charles Benavidez for Safehaven.com