Saudi Arabia: Keeping women tagged by text

The Guardian

Want to know whether your wife, sister or daughter has left the county? Well, in Saudi Arabia, there's an app for that. Reportedly, male guardians or mahrams in Saudi Arabia are now receiving text message notifications when their female charges leave the country unaccompanied. "iMahram", a friend of mine jokingly called it. According to Wajeha al-Huwaider, a Saudi female activist, when she left the kingdom for a holiday with her family, her husband received a text message from the foreign ministry notifying him that she had departed.

"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."

Although Huwaider is summarily dismissed as an exhibitionist by some Saudi women (mainly for her regular attempts to leave the kingdom without her mahram's permission in order to highlight the limitations of the guardianship system), it is very likely that she was targeted due to her previous activities.

But it is nevertheless an indication that the authorities are becoming more inventive and resourceful with technology. Just as expatriates in the country are tethered to their native sponsors, women are tethered to their guardians, who, no matter how laissez-faire they may be, must still go through the bureaucratic rigmarole of granting permission for their female dependents to leave the country unaccompanied. Even then, the permission has to be renewed regularly. There is little scope for blanket licences from mahrams – ostensibly to ensure that they are not abused.

In my experience, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states in general, are extremely fond of their technology and particularly their mobile phones. The telecoms infrastructure has flourished only recently in the region and hence was sophisticated from inception.

Gender segregation has spawned a culture of excessive telecommunication. Bluetooth usage (to exchange details between men and women anonymously) on phones was commonplace in Saudi Arabia before mobile owners in the west had any use for the tool. In a country of early adopters and super-users, people usually have more than one mobile phone to separate friends, family and professional contacts. Before pay-as-you go arrived on the scene, my female friends sometimes had their chauffeurs procure more mobile phone numbers in their own names so that the bill would not be sent to their father's home address.

Moreover, there is a unique culture of campaigning and social mobilisation by text. During the Danish cartoons controversy, round-robin texts circulated informing people of which products to boycott. When the first feature film was to be shown in Riyadh, a text message war kicked off between two factions, those for and those against the screening.

In that respect communications technology has been a boon for such societies where there has traditionally been little room for democratic exchange of ideas, natural human interaction or gatherings that are not intermediated by authorities.

It is a double-edged sword, however, as it can be appropriated by government and, in this case, seems to be helping perpetuate the status quo by enabling the authorities to keep tabs on their citizens (and not just for security reasons), extending the long arm of the state even further. The impact of modernity and globalisation, the harbingers of change, doesn't always flow in the direction of freedom.

It is not clear exactly what the Saudi authorities are hoping to achieve or pre-empt with this new measure, since if a woman has gone past immigration at the airport that means that she has already been signed off by her guardian and all her paperwork was in order. In addition, if one is to imagine that the guardian may have since changed his mind or was co-opted or tricked into giving permission, the text message allegedly contains no information about the woman's destination – only that she has left.

The messaging is above and beyond the call of duty. Maybe it's a beta version of a more sophisticated tagging system that will render all women's movements traceable by the state and their guardians – who knows?

That said, a low-level technology war between users and the authorities over everything from satellite dishes to camera phones has been brewing for some time and the government has been consistently failing to stem the tide. The latest salvo, fired on Tuesday, was the announcement that BlackBerry services in the kingdom will be blocked from Friday.

But there is still huge potential for citizens to use the disruptive influence of modern communications to circumvent the power of the state. If there were an app for that, I wonder what it would be called.