Friday, November 23, 2012

Saudi Arabia's new system sends SMS to 'male guardian' when a woman leaves the country

Saudi Arabia has instituted a new system that sends a text message to the "male guardian" of any women who leaves the country. Reports of the new system emerged, ironically, on Thanksgiving Day.

Manal al-Sharif -- who became the symbol of a campaign women's right to drive campaign launched in 2011 -- began posting information of the new system on Twitter, after she was alerted by a couple.

The couple who alerted al-Sharif was travelling toegether. As they did, the husband received a text message from immigration authorities informing him that his wife had left the international airport in Riyadh.

While details are sketchy, it sounds like the service is not opt-in. Since the husband in the couple above was surprised by the SMS, he didn't have to "sign up" to get the message.

It doesn't seem like the tracking is carried out using a tracking device on the person of the woman, at least. Instead, it seems that the immigration authorities simply text the "guardian male" on record when a woman leaves the country, manually.

Women are not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission from their male guardian, who must give her his consent by signing what is known as the “yellow sheet” at the airport or border.

Twitter was set afire with criticism of the new system. Columnist Badriya al-Bishr tweeted “This is technology used to serve backwardness in order to keep women imprisoned. It would have been better for the government to busy itself with finding a solution for women subjected to domestic violence."

Israa tweeted, “Why don’t you cuff your women with tracking ankle bracelets too?”

Hisham tweeted, “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."

Another tweet suggested -- jokingly mind you -- what would be the automated version of the system: “Why don’t we just install a microchip into our women to track them around?”

As Islamic country, Saudi Arabia uses a strict interpretation of sharia. It is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive, which is why Manal al-Sharif became part of a pro-driving campaign for women.

Now seen as an activist in Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif did not start the campaign, but instead became a symbol after a video showing her driving was posted to YouTube and Facebook.

She was filmed by Wajeha al-Huwaider, a women's rights activist who had previously filmed herself driving. After the video was uploaded, al-Sharif arrested and released on May 21, 2011, but then rearrested on the following day. She was not released until May 30, on bail and with the condition that she return for questioning if asked, that she not drive again, and that she not speak to the media.

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