In a country where women are denied the right to vote, are not allowed to drive, and are basically treated like children, Saudi Arabia has taken its next giant leap backwards by rolling out an SMS electronic tracking system that alerts male "guardians" by text message whenever women under their protection leave the country. The development has been met with outrage by reformers, who have turned to Twitter to voice their concern.
Saudi Arabia is a complete mess as far as women's rights is concerned. It ranks 130th out of 134 countries for gender equality — a nation where only 16.5% of women make up the workforce. As devout followers of Sharia Law, all women, regardless of age, require a male guardian and cannot leave the country without written consent.
And now, judging by a flurry of incoming accounts, it's clear that the country has covertly implemented a new system that will further serve to strengthen its control over women.
It all started last week when a Saudi man travelling with his wife began to get text messages on his phone from the immigration authorities alerting him to the fact that his wife had left the international airport in Riyadh (she was listed as a dependent on his national identity card). Concerned, he contacted Manal al-Sherif, a women's rights campaigner in Saudi Arabia, who then broadcast the news over Twitter.
Al-Sherif made headlines last year when she was arrested after uploading a video to YouTube in which she could be seen driving.
And as it turned out, the text messages weren't an isolated case. Similar accounts started to pour in, strongly suggesting that a new system had been rolled-out without so much as a peep from the Saudi authorities. It now appears that every guardian whose dependent has a passport is receiving a text after cross border crossings.
In response, the Ministry of the Interior has denied the allegations, saying it's not intended to connect women with their guardians. And according to the Riyadh Bureau, the system has been in place since 2010, but now the service works without having to register with the ministry. It claims that the system is part of a larger e-Government plan to use technology in order to facilitate access to its services — such as electronic travel permits (thus replacing the need for "yellow slips").
But while some see it as a convenience, others interpret is yet another way to exert control. It's becoming evident that Saudi Arabia has entered into a new era in which it's increasingly turning to high-tech solutions to enforce its laws. But as Wired reports, the issue has put the plight of Saudi women into the spotlight:
"For us, it's good to use this thing to go back to the main subject — treating women as minors," says Al-Sharif. "Before, I used to have to have a piece of paper for when I left the country saying my guardian had given me written permission. It could be for one-off travel or as long as the passport was valid. The Gulf used to make so much fun of us — 'how can you treat women this way?' they'd ask when we'd travel there. So what they did was start showing it electronically. Now it's invisible; we don't need to carry the piece of paper."
It seems that in a rapidly changing world, Saudi Arabia has chosen to keep up with the times by concealing its controls to outsiders while ensuring technology makes those same controls as efficient as they are subtle.
At the same time, it has also prompted a number of critics to express their angst over Twitter — what is the only real voice available to them. The French Press Agency recently compiled some of the highlights:
"Hello Taliban, herewith some tips from the Saudi e-government!" read one post.
"Why don't you cuff your women with tracking ankle bracelets too?" wrote Israa.
"Why don't we just install a microchip into our women to track them around?" joked another.
"If I need an SMS to let me know my wife is leaving Saudi Arabia, then I'm either married to the wrong woman or need a psychiatrist," tweeted Hisham.
"This is technology used to serve backwardness in order to keep women imprisoned," said Bishr, the columnist.
"It would have been better for the government to busy itself with finding a solution for women subjected to domestic violence" than track their movements into and out of the country.
Women in Saudi Arabia cannot vote or be elected to high political positions. However, King Abdullah recently declared that women will be able to vote and run in the 2015 local elections, and be appointed to the Consultative Assembly. So perhaps reforms are coming — but given how far behind Saudi Arabia is compared to other nations, it's clear women still have a long road ahead.
Images: Lisa S./shutterstock.