Digital Sharia App Allows Saudi Men to Control Women

  • Saudi law says every woman must have a male guardian, who has enormous power over her life and travel.
  • The Saudi government has digitized parts of the guardian system, letting Saudi men manage women’s lives online.
  • INSIDER spoke with Shahad al-Mohaimeed, a refugee who navigated this system to flee her family in 2017.
  • Guardians can specify when and from which airports women can travel, effectively trapping them in Saudi Arabia.
  • The system includes a text-messaging system that alerts men when women use their passports. They are often able to catch them as a result.
  • The system has existed for years, but it has come under renewed scrutiny after the high-profile asylum claim of the Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed.
  • INSIDER also spoke with activists and women’s-rights experts to highlight the full extent of the system.

Shahad al-Mohaimeed got up at midnight to leave her hotel room overlooking the blue water of Trabzon, a Turkish vacation town on the Black Sea. Her family picked the hilly, historic port because it offered a seaside break, but within an Islamic society.

Creeping barefoot out of the bedroom, al-Mohaimeed gathered her family’s credit cards, keys, passports, and, crucially, their phones. This would slow them down, she thought, when they tried to follow her.

Her escape had taken a year of planning.

Standing on the road outside the hotel she panicked at the silence. It was the first time in her life she had been outside on her own.

It was also the first time since she was 10 that she had not woken up and put on a full-body covering, either a burqa or a niqab.

“I was 17 and I was so scared, so, so, scared,” she recalls. “I left at midnight, and the night was so dark. I was scared of my brother and my family.”

Until that moment, al-Mohaimeed had spent the entire 17 years of her life almost constantly in the physical presence of a male guardian, in accordance with the system enshrined in Saudi law.

Speaking with INSIDER, al-Mohaimeed described frequent physical abuse from a father who she said regularly threatened to kill her. Infractions like being seen in the company of men who weren’t family would be punished with having her wrists and ankles bound with rope. “My family are an abusive family,” she said.

“There is no support for the beaten,” she said, “even when it’s reported, police are always on the man’s side.”

Women who get caught running away from the country are regularly never seen again. There are rumors that some have been killed — a prospect al-Mohaimeed saw as all too real.

“When we decide to leave,” she said, “we decide to put our lives on the line. Because if we don’t succeed, our families are going to kill us. It’s shameful to have a daughter leave.”

INSIDER has not been able to contact al-Mohaimeed’s relatives to ask them about her account.

A sprawling database of women in Saudi Arabia that men use to bar them from travel

As well as physical restrictions and social pressure, al-Mohaimeed had to navigate a sophisticated online system to escape. Her father’s phone — the one she stole that night in Trabzon — would have given him access to a Saudi government system called “Absher.”

Absher means “the preacher” in Arabic. It is the state-run system that contains the online expression of Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male-guardianship laws.

The Absher system — little-discussed in Western media — contains a log of women in Saudi Arabia and the means to bar them from travel or catch them trying to leave without permission….

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