Absher (Arabic: أبشر ‘Abshar, roughly meaning “good tidings” or “yes, done”) is a smartphone application which allows citizens of and residents in Saudi Arabia to use a variety of governmental services. Amongst several other services with the Absher app, it can be applied for jobs and Hajj permits, passport info can be updated and electronic crimes can be reported. The application provides 160 services for residents of Saudi Arabia including making appointments, renewing passports, residents' cards, IDs, driver's licenses and others, and, controversially, enables Saudi men to track the whereabouts of women they control as part of the country's male guardianship system.
The app can be downloaded from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store and is provided by the Saudi Interior Ministry. According to the Ministry of the Interior, Absher has more than 11 million users. As of February 2019, Absher has been downloaded 4.2 million times from the App Store.
Impact on women's rights
The app gained media attention in 2019 for its functions supporting the Saudi policy of male guardianship after an investigation by Business Insider. The app allows designated guardians to get notifications if a woman under their guardianship passes through an airport, and withdraw their right to travel.
In a few cases, women have been able to circumvent the intended functions of the app by gaining control over its settings to use it to allow themselves to travel.
In response to this criticism, Apple's CEO Tim Cook stated in February 2019 that he intended to investigate the situation. Google has also stated that it would review the application. After a prompt review, Google refused to remove the app as it does not violate the agreed terms and conditions.
In the context of this, Absher manager Atiyah Al-Anazy announced that 2 million women are currently using the application in Saudi Arabia to facilitate their transactions. Some female users have stated that the application has made their movement and travel related issues easier.
The app has been criticized by various human rights activists, human rights organizations and international communities. The US and the European countries have also condemned the app and urged the kingdom to end its male guardianship system.
US Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote a letter to the CEO’s of Apple and Google, criticizing the app and demanding for its removal immediately. Wyden said "American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government's patriarchy," and called the Saudi system of control over women "abhorrent".
According to the EU lawmakers, current rules imposed over the women by the Saudi government make women “second-class citizens”. The lawmakers also asked the EU states to continue to build pressure on Riyadh so as to improve the conditions of women and human rights.
US congresswomen Rep. Katherine Clark and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney condemned the kingdom’s male guardianship system that reflected from the app, calling Absher a "patriarchal weapon" and asking for its removal.
However, Saudi doctor Khawla Al-Kuraya supported this app an editorial in Bloomberg News. Kuraya wrote that Absher helped Saudi women avoid governmental bureaucracy as it allows their male guardians to process their travel permits anywhere and anytime through the App. Although she believes that the guardianship system needs to be reconsidered, she thinks that Absher is an important step towards facilitating women-guardians related issues in Saudi Arabia.
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