Saudi technology guards against women escaping

Air flight will trigger SMS to 'guardian.'

When women’s rights activist Wajiha Al-Huwaidar flew out of Saudi Arabia last week for a holiday in Italy with her family, she was hoping for a brief respite from what she describes as the ‘gender apartheid kingdom.’
She wasn’t so lucky.
As she left, her husband received an automated SMS text message from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informing him that his wife, legally considered his ‘dependant’ under Saudi Arabia’s strict gendered guardianship system, had left the country.
Al-Huwaidar’s husband received the same text, she learned last week, when she had left Saudi Arabia on another recent trip to Germany.
“It is sad how Saudis use technology in a way not intended to be used for,” she told The Media Line. “In Saudi Arabia, technology brings more restrictions and misery! They use it to have more control over people’s lives, especially women.”
“I am an adult woman that has been earning my own income for over a decade now but according to the Saudi government, I am a dependent until the day I die because of my gender,” Al-Huwaidar said. “I'm not sure how it works, but lately we get to be informed through our mobile phones about our bank accounts, sale ads, jobs, donation campaigns and others. I'm sure it's a new service that the government is using for different purposes. They don’t state which country the dependent left for, but simply state that they did leave.”
Saudi authorities did not respond to requests to comment on this article, and whether the text messages received by Al-Huwaidar’s husband indicate a new system of monitoring or a case-specific effort to track Al-Huwaidar’s movements.
“I’m a member of the Saudi women’s rights group and my husband did not tell me he received a message which means he probably didn’t,” Reem Asaad, a Saudi economics lecturer and women’s rights activist told The Media Line. “It’s possible that Wajiha [Al-Huwaidar] has been spotlighted by the authorities.”
Saudi Arabia’s strict patriarchal guardianship system requires all women to be represented by men -- either their husband, father or son -- in all public and official spheres of life. Women are not allowed to drive, inherit, divorce or gain custody of children; and cannot enter most public spaces without a male guardian.
“My husband had to fill out a form at the passport control authority to allow me and my children to travel outside the country whenever I like,” Asaad explained. “He has to renew that with each passport every five years. Most women travel this way.”
Nadya Khalife, the Middle East Women's Rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the guardianship system presents an enormous barrier to Saudi women’s freedom of movement.
“Guardianship is a really complicated system and has a great effect not only on women’s travel within Saudi Arabia but also to the outside world, prohibiting women’s freedom of movement in a very critical way,” she told The Media Line. “A woman cannot leave the country without the permission of her guardian, who might be her youngest son. The text messages just adds another level of controlling women’s movements. I guess they’re getting more technologically advanced.”
The Saudi government has gone to great efforts recently to improve the image of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the country’s religious police who are tasked with enforcing the guardianship system.
Earlier this year the commission’s national director was fired and the new director, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Humain, announced a series of training programs and a special unit to handle complaints against the religious police.
“The government has promised to change the system and said that women over 40 can travel a bit without a guardian,” Khalife said. “But from what we’ve seen and the complaints we’ve received from women in Saudi, the system is still very much in place. Women still need their guardian’s permission to travel, to study, to work, and even to go to a court to complain about domestic violence. So there’s a bit of a disconnect between the promises that have been made and the reality on the ground.”
Dr. Edit Schlaffer, founder of the advocacy group Women Without Borders, said the Saudi guardianship system is in violation of international law.
“The guardian system is one of these things that is not justified by the Qu’ran,” she told The Media Line. “No other Muslim country has a system like this. It’s a unique Saudi interpretation of Islam and according to the freedom of movement provisions under the Human Rights Act the guardianship system is totally unacceptable to the international community. But unfortunately, women’s rights are not at the forefront of international humans rights issues.”
Dr. Schlaffer, who recently concluded an extensive study on gender in Saudi Arabia, argued that while there is a growing Saudi movement opposed to the guardianship system, outside pressure will not help.
“There is a growing movement within Saudi Arabia which is supported by women and forward-looking men who oppose the guardianship system,” she said. “But Saudi Arabia is outside the international time zone so change is extremely slow.”
“At the same time I feel that interferance from outside is helpful,” she continued. “It creates new blockages. The way forward is to help civil society within Saudi to provide a space for change.”