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Electronic tracking for Saudi women?

Commentators say the issue is not the e-tracking system, but the male guardianship system, which defines women as ‘dependents’ their whole lives.

Commentators say the issue is not the e-tracking system, but the male guardianship system, which defines women as ‘dependents’ their whole lives.

Reports emerged this week of a system implemented by the Saudi government, which provides men with text-message notifications if their wives leave or enter the country – throwing the spotlight on the issue of male guardianship in the country.

The reports were sparked by a Saudi couple who left the country for a holiday and the husband was surprised to receive a text message from the Ministry of Interior (MOI) providing information on the time and airport from which his “dependent” left the country.

It has been clarified that the system is in fact nothing new, and has been available for men who registered for it for a couple of years now. The only difference is that men who did not actively sign up for the service are now also receiving the notifications.

Electronic guardianship

Saudi blogger and journalist, Ahmed Al Omran, has also pointed out that the monitoring system is not only for women but for when any “dependents” leave or enter the country.

“In Saudi Arabia, that includes not only your underage sons and daughters, but also your wife (and other women under your custody) as well as foreign workers sponsored by you. Dependents are not allowed to leave the country without permission from their guardian or sponsor.”

The text messages do not provide any further information as to the destination of the dependent or expected return date of that person.

Providing an explanation for the notifications suddenly being received by people who haven’t knowingly signed up for it, Omran says in April 2012 the MOI introduced a new system of electronic services named ‘Absher’.

“The goal of the new system, according to a statement published by the state news agency, is to make it easier for citizens and residents to deal with the ministry ‘without having to visit the passport office’. The system is part of a larger e-government plan to use technology in order to facilitate access to its services,” says Omran.

The new system replaces the ‘yellow slip’ that women previously had to have signed by their male guardians to provide consent for them to leave the country.

Omran explains: “To take advantage of the new service, you would need to register on the MOI Web site. When you register, you must provide your mobile number for authentication. The number then remains stored and connected to your ID on the MOI database. This is probably why many people started to receive these messages now.”

According to Omran, there is currently no means of disabling the text notifications without doing away with the convenience of the electronic services.

“The problem is not that there is now an electronic system that sends an SMS when women travel. Some people might actually want this service. The problem is that the government is enforcing rules of male guardianship even on the rest of us who don’t believe in such rules,” says Omran.

Male control

Professor of Middle East politics and Islamic issues, Bayan Perazzo, says: “Though the media was right to be outraged, it was mistaken to direct it at the e-tracking system. The real problem is that the guardianship system – which essentially robs women of their basic human rights – still exists in Saudi Arabia today.

“Human Rights Watch released an in-depth report about the guardianship system in early 2008, urging the country to end the practice and stating that ‘the Saudi government has sacrificed basic human rights to maintain male control over women’.”

She adds: “While Saudi males cease being dependents at the age of 18, Saudi women essentially remain minors their entire lives.”

As awareness of the system began to spread, it sparked outrage on Twitter:

“Why don't we just install a microchip into our women to track them?”

“Why don't you cuff your women with tracking ankle bracelets too?”

“Saudi women under e-surveillance, husbands get SMS if wife crosses border. But why would anyone leave such a loving, nurturing country?”

Some tweets were less sensitive; one user said: “Saudi Arabia is now electronically monitoring the location of women. So. Umm. Yeah, how do we get in on that?”

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