Apple pressured to remove Saudi app that allows oppression of women

Andrew Cummings
February 20, 2019

An app available from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store is the focus of global criticism since it allows Saudi men to track the location of their wives and daughters. The report also included the story of a teen that successfully evaded Saudi Arabia. Absher allows men to track women under the kingdom's laws requiring females, regardless of age, to have a male "guardian" in charge of their activities.

Rights activists say that a feature that sends a text message when a woman tries to go through passport control is being used to keep them in abusive relationships or restrict personal freedom.

Apple did not immediately return Fortune's request for comment; neither did Google, which also hosts the app in its Play store.

She said both companies have rules about which apps are allowed on the platform but it is unclear how they are applied. A copy of the letter was shared on Twitter by Business Insider editor Jake Kantor.

In an interview with NPR on Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked about the Absher controversy.

"It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women, but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government's patriarchy", Wyden argued in his letter to the tech companies. While Apple pre-screens apps, Google relies on users' feedback in case of any violation.

Apple and Google have different systems for flagging inappropriate apps.

Despite the backlash, neither Apple or Google have deleted the Absher from their app stores.

Both Google and Apple describe Absher glowingly as an app through which "you can safely browse your profile or your family members, or [labourers] working for you, and perform a wide range of eServices online".

The app alerts male "guardians" to the movements of females, and allows users to revoke travel "privileges" of the women in their "care".

Human rights campaigners argued the tech giants are enabling abuses against women and girls in the ultra-conservative kingdom by hosting the app. The calls for change come amid an enduring scandal over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

"There's an app called Absher in Saudi Arabia which allows men to track their female "dependents" if they try to leave the country", he said on February 11.

However, Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a spokesman on the Middle East for women's rights group Equality Now, raised doubts over whether the companies would take action. However, he noted that, "obviously we'll take a look at it if [the complaints about it are accurate]".

In Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, immigrants from Asia and Africa work in conditions of "bondage", he said.

Saudi Arabia's interior ministry said 11 million people use the app and Google has said it has been downloaded one million times from their store.

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