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Calls to ban the Saudi Arabian ‘wife-tracking’ app miss the point
Want to control where and when your wife can travel? There’s an app for that! Over the past week Apple and Google have been criticized for carrying a Saudi government app called Absher that lets men restrict the movements of women under their guardianship. Men can choose to get text alerts when their wife or a female relative goes through an airport, and can revoke the woman’s right to travel with a few easy clicks. Apple and Google have both said they will look into whether the app violates their policies and should be pulled from their app stores.
Of course, Absher isn’t the real problem here. The problem is Saudi Arabia’s abhorrent male guardianship system under which women are treated as minors and need permission from a man to do everything from renting an apartment to accessing healthcare. However, digital tools like Absher make it easier for men to apply these repressive laws.
On Monday, Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote a letter to Apple and Google stating that American companies shouldn’t enable or “facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy … [you] are making it easier for Saudi men to control their family members from the convenience of their smartphones and restrict their movements.”
On Wednesday the Democratic party caucus’s vice-chair, Massachusetts representative Katherine Clark, similarly tweeted: “Absher is a patriarchal weapon … #Apple and #Google must stop facilitating this dangerous tool of control.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Absher is awful and I’m glad that Saudi Arabia’s repressive gender laws are getting coverage. However some of the kneejerk outrage about what has been dubbed the “wife-tracking app” lacks nuance and could end up being counterproductive. Mona Eltahawy, a prominent Egyptian American feminist, tweeted a message from a Saudi woman explaining that while Absher is awful, having it removed will further restrict women. Before it came along, she said, granting travel restrictions was burdensome so guardians would use that as excuse to keep women at home.
Noura Altamimi, a Saudi woman who works at the Arabia Foundation in Washington DC, gave me similar feedback. “In some instances, Absher can make it easier for Saudi women to navigate male guardianship law,” she told me over Twitter direct message. “It allows guardians to completely waive travel restrictions, permitting women to travel without a guardian or guardian’s approval in every instance. The focus ought to be on the restrictive laws, not the interface. In fact, the app has been available since 2015, but is only now getting attention because of the heightened scrutiny surrounding all things Saudi.”
Heightened scrutiny of all things Saudi, in my opinion, is a good thing; the west has cozied up to Saudi Arabia for far too long, ignoring egregious human rights violations because the kingdom was a profitable ally. While Apple and Google may be facilitating guardianship laws by carrying the Absher app, this is nothing compared to how western governments have enabled the kingdom’s repressive leaders for decades. So it feels more than a little hypocritical for politicians to be outraged about an app when both Democrats and Republicans have a long history of ignoring gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia. By all means let’s put pressure on Apple and Google to think more carefully about the impact of the apps they carry, but let’s not let politicians off the hook for their complicity in how Saudi Arabia’s women are treated.
William Barr confirmed as US attorney general
Barr, who served as attorney general under former president George HW Bush, was confirmed by the senate on Thursday. This is a blow to women’s rights activists: Barr has said that he thinks Roe v Wade will be overturned and doesn’t believe the right to privacy extends to abortion. One imagines that he also thinks the Saudi Arabian wife-tracking app is a brilliant idea.
FBI investigates Ryan Adams
The FBI is looking into whether singer-songwriter Ryan Adams committed a crime by sending sexually explicit texts to a teenage girl. The Guardian’s Laura Snapes has a great piece about how the Adams allegations are the “tip of an indie-music iceberg”. Snapes writes: “The [music] industry has been slower to reckon with its abusers post-#MeToo than other art forms, partly because it is built on a generally permissive culture of excess and blurred lines between work and leisure – but also because the myth of the unbridled male genius remains at its core.”
Facebook sex-based search quirk
Facebook’s search function lets you look for photos of your female friends but not your male ones, a Belgian security researcher has discovered. It’s not clear whether this is a bug or a feature.
Nothing funny about #LigueduLOL
French media had a big #MeToo moment this week when it became public that Ligue du LOL, a Facebook group full of prominent male journalists, had been harassing female journalists for years. On Thursday the French government said it was going to improve its internet abuse laws following the scandal. Les Glorieuses, a French feminist newsletter, covers the issue here.
A pink tax on perfume
Some brands are charging up to £20 ($26) more for perfumes marketed at women, versus their male equivalents, a study has found. Yet more evidence the patriarchy stinks.