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Google refuses to remove Saudi app that allows men to restrict women's movement

Tech giant says mobile application does not violate its terms and conditions, despite widespread condemnation
Google said Absher did not violate any of its terms and conditions for app developers (Reuters)

Google has refused to remove from its services a mobile app that allows Saudi men to track the movement of women and migrant workers and restrict their ability to travel overseas. 

The tech giant said it conducted checks on Absher and concluded that the app did not violate any of its terms and conditions, so it will not be removed from Google's Play store.

Both Google and Apple have faced criticism from US politicians and human rights groups for hosting the application.

Google did not comment on its decision when approached by Middle East Eye.

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Absher is an application that helps Saudi citizens manage their passports, birth certificates and vehicle registrations through the kingdom's interior ministry. 

Under Saudi Arabia's guardianship system, women are classified as "dependants" and require permission from their male guardians to leave the country.

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The Absher app enables Saudi men to grant and revoke permission for their dependants to leave the country.

Saudi men can also set up a text messaging system via the app to notify them of when their "dependant" uses their passport to travel overseas. The guardian can then revoke permission to travel and stop them leaving the country.

Saudi sponsors of migrant workers are also given the same powers with their employees.

Condemnation in Washington

Last month, 14 newly elected members of the US Congress demanded Google and Apple remove the app, describing Absher as a means to "perpetuate 16th-century tyranny".

"By sending a text notifying a male 'guardian' when a woman's national identification card or passport is used at an airport, the app serves as [a] tracking device," the Democrats noted in an open letter. 

'A Saudi man can exert near total control over the livelihood of these vulnerable migrant workers'

- Democrat lawmakers

"Keeping this application in your stores allows your companies and your American employees to be accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women and migrant workers."

The letter added: "With a few taps of his finger on an app offered on your companies' app stores, a Saudi man can exert near total control over the livelihood of these vulnerable migrant workers."

Notable signatories of the open letter include US House representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. 

Apple, meanwhile, has said that it had not concluded its investigation of Absher. 

Riyadh defended Absher and said it provides services for "all members of the society... including women, the elderly, and people with special needs".