Women wearing abaya leaving for a prayer at Nabawi Mosque, Medina, Saudi Arabia

‘Absher is the official individual’s eServices Mobile Application that provide the services of Absher portal in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ the description of the app reads on the App Store. ‘You can safely browse your profile or your family members or labours working for you’.

Through Absher, hosted by the Saudi Ministry of Interior, you can access sensitive information: locations, passports, driving licenses, visas. You can also receive alerts when your female relatives use their passport at a border. This is alarming and abhorrent; a government-crafted system that allows individuals to view the travel details of women, and to authorize or deny approval of said travel is a clear violation of The International Bill of Human Rights that protects the rights of individuals to be born free, to be free of discrimination, and the freedom of movement, among several others. Saudi Arabia is an exhaustingly patriarchal country with a chequered history of human rights, but Absher takes things to dizzying new heights by allowing men to control women from any location in the world, a level of control comparable only to state prisoners and military targets.

Saudi women have recently been issued driving licenses for the first time in the country’s history, although women who campaigned for the law change remain jailed and subject to torture and abuse, according to Amnesty International. The country’s slow progress on the emancipation of women is further visible in their ‘guardianship’ system, enshrined in law, that requires women to have approval from their male ‘guardians’ to travel, visit a supermarket, apply for a job, marry and more. It should be noted that some similar rules apply to foreign workers, who also need the authorisation of their employer to enter or leave countries, or to find a new job. The guardianship system is a form of patriarchal state sanctioned slavery, in an era where technology and surveillance culture seeps into the microcosms of women’s daily lives in a state that does not consider them human.  

Maha and Waife al-Subaie, two sisters who stole their father’s phone to obtain passports and give themselves travel permission in order to permanently leave Saudi Arabia, have urged Apple and Google to ban the app from gadgets.

The plea puts the spotlight on the moral imperative of tech companies to take responsibility for the many ways in which women are oppressed and targeted online, from the deep misogyny of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to the blatant sexism of the gaming industry. Silicon Valley markets itself as progressive and inclusive, but the truth is that patriarchy and technology are intertwined;  the consideration of women beyond consumers is non-existent. When it comes to surveillance, things become bleaker still.

Surveillance is primarily about coercion and power, a way to limit the agency of individuals that is often justified as being in the interests of national security. But with Absher as a prime example, surveillance is neither objective nor neutral; it is almost always racialised, gendered, and classed. Google ‘unprofessional hair’ and images of black women appear. Search for images of ‘man’ or ‘women’ and predominantly white, able bodied examples are given. Surveillance relies on algorithms, which are based on patterns, coded by predominantly white, cis-gendered males. Patterns are, by definition, a sequence of recurring symbols, objects, numbers, etc, and when incorporated into algorithms, a set of ‘norms’ to be used for comparison. This means that surveillance algorithms inevitably become programmed to pick out marginalised groups and non-normative bodies. Given that surveillance is now habitually incorporated into state security, the workplace, educational institutions (think Prevent), and how capitalism relies on data aggregation to target consumers, I believe it is fair to say that surveillance is an incredibly dangerous and effective tool of the patriarchal world order.

Absher is not a benevolent government service. It is a powerful form of digital control, designed to prevent women in Saudi Arabia from living as free, emancipated individuals. But my example of a Saudi app is not to suggest that digital control does not happen in the western world. It does, unquestionably. Absher is simply an extreme example of the insidious relationship between surveillance culture and patriarchy, and tech companies, governments, and wider society have a responsibility to challenge the oppressive side of technological progress.

In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the latest Absher reviews on the Google Play store; there are some sardonic gems amongst some very interesting messages of support or criticism. However, humour aside, do not forget the lives of women and marginalised groups are exposed and exploited by technology. Surveillance is a feminist issue.  

 

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