Is the Saudi Government Monitoring Women?

An uproar broke out on Twitter last week when some Saudi women discovered that their male guardians began receiving text messages on their phones informing them that the women under their custody have left or entered the country.

Reporting on the uproar, AFP described it this way: “women in Saudi Arabia are now monitored by an electronic system that tracks any cross-border movements.” This description is inaccurate. The so-called monitoring system is not just for women. The text messages would be sent when any of your dependents leave or enter the country. In Saudi Arabia that includes not only your underage sons and daughters, but also your wife (and other women under your custody) as well as foreign workers sponsored by you. Dependents are not allowed to leave the country without permission from their guardian or sponsor.

At first, I did not understand the uproar on Twitter because I thought this notification system has been in place for a couple of years now. Eman al-Nafjan wrote about it back in 2010:

Apparently they have a new service where they send the male guardian a text every time a “dependent” leaves the country. They don’t state which country the dependent left for but simply state that they did leave. My husband tells me he got the same text when I left for Germany. 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 till the day I die because of my gender.

When I asked why the uproar now when this has been going on for at least a couple of years now, people told me that the difference is that in the past you had to register for the service to to receive the notification text messages. Now, they said, you get the messages even if you don’t register with the ministry.

This doesn’t make sense. How is it possible for the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to send you these messages if you don’t give them your number? It seems that most people have given their numbers to the Ministry without realizing. Here’s how this has probably happened.

In April 2012, MOI introduced a new system of electronic services named Absher. The goal of the new system, according to a statement published by the state news agency, is to make it easier for citizens and residents to deal with the ministry “without having to visit the passport office.” The system is part of a larger e-Government plan to use technology in order to facilitate access to its services.

One of the services offered by Absher allows you to issue an electronic travel permit to your dependents. The introduction of the new electronic system meant that the infamous “yellow slip” is no longer needed. In the past, if a woman wanted to leave the country, her male guardian must give his consent by signing the yellow slip which is then given to passport control officers at the at the airport or border. The electronic travel permit is stored in the passport control system and therefore the yellow slip is now defunct.

Many would probably say that this is a good thing. Why go to the passport office to issue a travel permit for your dependent when you can do that from any computer with an internet connection? This is useful even for women who used to be stopped at the airport because they forgot the yellow slip at home.

To take advantage of the new service, you would need to register on MOI website. When you register, you must provide your mobile number for authentication. The number then remains stored and connected to your ID on MOI database. This is probably why many people started to receive these messages now. When you apply for the service, you have to sign a form called “Electronic Services Registration & Activation Form.” If you read the terms and conditions, they clearly state:

the service will send “Notification” SMS messages to the subscriber’s mobile number related to personal documents and transactions for the subscriber, his dependants, expat employees, or vehicles, based on the information available in the Ministry of Interior (MOI) systems. (eg.: notification of forthcoming expiry of driver’s license, change of occupation, arrival of dependant to the country …)

As you can see here, you opt for the service. If you don’t want to get the SMS notifications then simply don’t register with the ministry. If you registered and want to opt out, the TOCs say at the end that “Both, Subscriber and MOI have the right to end the subscription at any time without showing cause.” Opting out does not mean that your dependents would no longer need permission for travel, but rather that you would have to visit the passport office to issue the permit instead of doing that conveniently online.

It would be nice if you could turn off notifications via text messages without losing the convenience of the electronic services, but that does not seem available at the present time. It would be even nicer, of course, if women did not need permissions from their male guardians to travel, but that’s another post.

The problem is not that there is now an electronic system that sends an SMS when women travel. Some people might actually want this service. The problem is that the government is enforcing rules of male guardianships even on the rest of us who don’t believe in such rules. One day, MOI could choose to provide a checkbox in their system that says: “My female relatives don’t need my permission to travel.” That day, unfortunately, has not come yet.