Authoritarian Tech

Fleeing Saudi sisters issue plea for help and a message for Apple and Google

After escaping a lifetime of abuse at the hands of their families, the two women have called for the removal of a controversial Western-backed app which restricts the lives of many Saudi women

In an apartment on the outskirts of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, two Saudi women are in hiding. Startled by any noise outside the door, the sisters sit close to each other as they describe how they had to outsmart their family, the Saudi government and Western-enabled technology to flee a lifetime of abuse in the kingdom.

Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25 escaped the country on April 1, taking the first plane ride of their lives, flying initially to Turkey and then on to Georgia.

The sisters grew up in the small town of Ranyah with eight other siblings in a family where men exercised control over all aspects of their lives. In recent years their father had been using a Saudi government app called Absher that, among other features, enables male guardians to impose travel restrictions on women.

Now, the sisters just have each other.

“We cannot sleep. We cannot eat,” said Wafa in an interview in their temporary apartment, looking to her elder sister for reassurance. “We don’t know if we will live or we will go to a safe country or we will go back home and we will die.”

As they wait for answers from embassies and United Nations agencies on what their future holds, the sisters have a message for the Silicon Valley giants Google and Apple which just weeks ago refused to take down the Saudi-government app Absher that helped their father to restrict their travel rights:

“This is a stupid and aggressive application against women,” said Maha. “Either they remove this application or they change the permissions of its users,” continued her younger sister.

Launched in 2015, Absher was designed to help Saudis navigate local bureaucracy, but it also allows Saudi men in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom to grant or deny travel permissions for women in their family with a click.

Inside the Absher app: a young woman still in Saudi snuck into her father’s phone to show how it works from the inside

Last month, Google refused to delete Absher after the company reviewed the app and said it did not violate any agreements. The statement came after fourteen members of Congress demanded that Google and Apple remove Absher from their app stores. In a letter to the two tech companies, the Democratic lawmakers called Apple and Google “accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women” by hosting the application.

Apple CEO Tim Cook promised to look into Absher, but the company has not responded to the letter from the US lawmakers.

“By not taking a stance at all, I think there is an argument to say that any tech company that is participating in the treatment of women and girls as not equal citizens on earth and not deserving human rights on earth is complicit,” said Dr. Stephanie Hare, a London-based technology expert whose research focuses on the intersection of politics and technology. “Is helping to oppress Saudi women and girls a good look for you Apple and Google?”

Some argue that removing the app leaves women with even fewer options. The digital age has in fact allowed more women to escape oppression in Saudi Arabia. Previously, women needed the physical presence of their male guardians to travel, and some argue that Absher at least gives them an option of hacking their way out of the control of their male guardians.

Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, says removing the app would just be treating the symptom of a larger problem.

“What we really need is for Google and Apple to make these public statements to end travel restrictions,” she said.  

Tech companies have staked out ethical positions in the past. In 2015 Apple refused an FBI request to unlock the phone of the mass shooter who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, citing privacy concerns.

“These are companies that will go toe-to-toe with the U.S. government when they want to, so they can go toe-to-to with Saudi Arabia if they want to,” Hare said. “So the question is, why aren’t they? Is it that they don’t care about women and girls but they do care about privacy and AI?”

The plight of Saudi women who have managed to flee the control of relatives was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when an 18-year-old woman was granted asylum in Canada. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunn first slipped away from her family while on holiday in Kuwait and boarded a plane for Thailand. Friends and supporters joined Alqunn in a successful social media campaign when Thai officials denied her entry into the country. After a tense 48-hour standoff, she was granted refugee status by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The al-Subaie sisters began planning their escape five years ago. “We were following each girl who escaped,” Maha said. “With each year, the number of girls who fled or tried to flee increased.”

Wafa said that she dreamed of escaping since she was a little girl. “I wished to put my clothes in a bag and escape from the house,” she said. “I grew up with this thought in my mind.”

Growing up, the sisters were not allowed to leave their home unaccompanied, to speak or be seen when guests visited, or choose who to marry. When they disobeyed, their family members would beat them, sometimes using electrical cables or clothes hangers. Maha showed photos of sprawling, dark bruises and lash marks left from beatings she and her sister had endured. For years the sisters secretly documented their abuse with photos and audio recordings which they are now sending to embassies and U.N. representatives in Tbilisi, in a precarious bid for international protection.  

“We are trapped if we disappeared it’s your responsibility,” they posted on April 17 on their newly opened @GeorgiaSisters account on Twitter. Their decision to go public came out of desperation after two weeks of trying to figure out the asylum procedures, pleading with Western embassies for visas and hiding in different rented apartments across Tbilisi.

The decision to go public is extremely rare, said Taleb Al Abdulmohsen, who helps run a secret online network of women who have fled the kingdom, sourcing advice and providing emotional support for those on the run, including the al-Subaie sisters. “Probably 95%, even 99% of [women] who escape from Saudi Arabia leave secretly.” He said women who successfully manage to escape usually fear being recognized in public spaces and reported to their families.

What the al-Subaie sisters do not want to reveal is exactly how exactly they hacked into their father’s phone and then into the app in case the information could be used to prevent other women from fleeing.

Back home in Ranyah, a city of about 45,000 people and five hours from Mecca, Wafa says she dreamed of becoming a photographer and would practice taking photos on her phone. But her image-taking was limited to pictures of her sisters, the rooms in which they were confined, or the food brought for them. She closely examined the camera used to record her interview, and kept adjusting the curtains in the apartment for better lighting.

And when she found out that we are the same age, she immediately asked, “And you live without your family?” I told her yes. She threw her arms around me, squeezing tightly and said, “Oh my God, someday I will live like this too.”

The sisters face a number of significant hurdles. When they officially asked for asylum on April 15 they also learned that their family requested that the Georgian government return them to Saudi Arabia.

Abdulmohsen said as recently as last August a young Saudi woman failed to show up at the French embassy in Tbilisi to collect her visa. Several weeks later, she surfaced in a Saudi jail, he says. The French embassy said in an email that it does not comment on issues related to individuals.

For Maha and Wafa, what’s at stake is clear:

“If we go back, they will kill us,” Maha said.

Additional reporting by Sophiko Vasadze and Mariam Kiparoidze

Katerina Patin

Katerina Patin is a multimedia producer at Coda Story.

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