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'It's an enemy of women': Saudi sisters recount how an app kept them down — until they tricked it

'It's an enemy of women': Saudi sisters recount how an app kept them down — until they tricked it
"Wafa, left, and Maha Al-Subaie, who fled from Saudi Arabia by tricking the app that helped their family keep track of their travel. Copyright Dean Taylor NBC News
Copyright Dean Taylor NBC News
By Sarah Harman and Katia Patin with NBC News Tech and Science News
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The Absher app, which provides access to government services, has drawn international scrutiny for its role in perpetuating Saudi Arabia's guardianship system.

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TBILISI, Georgia — For more than five years, Maha and Wafa al-Subaie planned their escape from Saudi Arabia.

The sisters hoped to flee their family, which they said was physically abusive and controlled almost every aspect of their lives. This control was facilitated in part by a smartphone app called Absher.

The app can be used to grant or deny permissions for state services such as obtaining a passport or traveling outside the country. The app also offers electronic access to a variety of government services and notifies guardians if women travel beyond Saudi Arabia.

Even once they were able to leave the country, the sisters worried the app would help their family find them.

"It's an enemy of women," Maha al-Subaie, 28, said of the app, which has drawn growing international scrutiny for its role in perpetuating Saudi Arabia's guardianship system. Under the system, a woman is effectively a minor from birth to death, requiring a male guardian — usually a father, husband or brother — to grant permission for everything, including marriage or travel.

On April 1, the sisters saw their opportunity. They were able to trick the Absher app, enabling them to board the first flights of their life — from the Saudi capital of Riyadh to Istanbul, and then to Trabzon, Turkey. From there, the sisters paid a taxi to take them across the border to Georgia, and now they are living in a third country that they asked not to disclose.

The al-Subaie sisters have joined a growing group of women who successfully fled Saudi Arabia in search of greater freedoms. Others haven't been as lucky.

Despite some reforms giving new rights to women, the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia remains mostly intact, including limitations on travel.

Growing international attention paid to women in Saudi Arabia has also included scrutiny of the Saudi government-backed Absher app, and of the major technology companies that allow it to be available on their platforms. Sometimes referred to as the "wife-tracking app," Absher was launched in 2015 to grant Saudi citizens digital access to government ministry services and simplify bureaucratic tasks, such as renewing a passport or registering a vehicle.

But for Saudi men, Absher also includes an additional feature called "dependent services," which allows male guardians to restrict travel by their female "dependents."

"I am so tired of fighting for small things, fighting for my rights," Maha al-Subaie said during an interview in April near her safehouse outside Georgia's capital of Tbilisi.

The Absher app has been the focus of intense criticism in recent months, particularly in the United States. In February, a group of Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to Apple and Google, both of which host the app in their stores, demanding that they remove it. The companies declined to take action.

Apple declined to comment for this story. Google did not return a request for comment.

The app, however, is not foolproof. Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit organization that has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia's guardianship rules, said that it had found at least three cases in which Saudi women were able to access the phones of their guardians and change their travel settings.

Young women wearing the traditional abaya walk past a sign as they help to organize an outdoor educational driving event for women on June 21, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Young women wearing the traditional abaya walk past a sign as they help to organize an outdoor educational driving event for women on June 21, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi ArabiaSean Gallup

Maha and Wafa al-Subaie, didn't want to reveal how they hacked Absher. Exposing the loopholes, they explained, could lead to a guardian taking steps to protect his account.

"We need to help other women," Wafa al-Subaie, 25, said.

Human Rights Watch does not currently support the removal of the app, noting "that could lead to unintended negative consequences for some women who may surreptitiously change travel permissions or halt text message alerts on their male guardian's phone."

Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at Waterloo University in Canada, also noted that the app has afforded women in Saudi Arabia more freedom than in the past.

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"What was in place before the app was basically a bureaucratic nightmare for women to get their guardian's approval," Momani said. "A guardian had to go to a local office, fill out paperwork and that is cumbersome. The reality of life is that no one wants to undertake those kind of bureaucratic measures, so an app, ironically, I think makes it easier for women."

In early May, the sisters were finally able to leave Georgia. After a month spent in limbo, they finally received asylum in a third country. They want to keep their new home a secret out of fear that their family will find them.

Speaking from their new home, the sisters say they are excited and a little overwhelmed.

"I feel like I'm still dreaming," Wafa al-Subaie said via text message.

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