Putting Texts in Context: Saudi Text Tagging

Earlier this month, CNN Expansión reported that the Saudi government aimed to prohibit the Blackberry Messenger service, since it is considered a threat to national security because the service doesn’t allow the government to intercept messages.

Blackberry has become very popular among single young people, who use it as a way to connect with men or women in a society where gender segregation is strictly imposed. Although negotiations continue between Blackberry and the government, the government itself is “modernizing” its control tactics.

The Global Voices Blog has recently reported that the Saudi government is currently using a system that informs male guardians whenever a woman, who is their dependant, has traveled outside the country. Wajeha Al Huwaider, a women’s rights activist, was the first one to alert the media about this system, on which the Saudi government has refused to comment.

Eman Al Nafjan, a female Saudi blogger whose husband received a text when she recently left the country, explains how the system works: with the new tracking system, men may sign up for an online service which allows them to receive SMS notifications that let them know once a woman has left the country. A third party related to the government provides the service. As Malik reports in her article, it is not clear what the exact purpose of this measure is, since women who leave the country have already gotten permission from their guardians.

Al Huwaider affirms that, in Saudi Arabia, technology is being misused to oppress women. In addition, Nadya Khalife and Reem Asaad comment, that in addition to the difficulties presented to women who want to travel, this new application represents a threat to women’s freedom of mobility.

It’s not just women who are being tracked, however. Arab News reports that the service allows sponsors to be informed if a worker, who is under their responsibility, has “escaped” or acquired another profession. While some people find it useful in terms of their legal responsibility, others affirm that this will prevent workers to receive help in cases of abuse, especially towards domestic workers, such as maids.

An interesting thing is the fact that some people neither support nor reject the initiative, but instead they complain about the lack of response from Muslim activist groups. A woman explains that if the West had done the same to Muslim women, Muslim activists would have been protesting and complaining about Islamophobia. Although the service is not strange for those who know that women normally depend on their male relatives to perform daily activities in Saudi Arabia, women around the globe mocked and complained about the Saudi system.

However, Dr. Edit Schalaffer, who has performed extensive research on gender issues in the Kingdom, thinks that even though many people are tired of such restrictions, international pressure won’t help. Instead, she suggests, Saudi society should be encouraged to allow change to happen.

In a country where Qur’anic interpretation follows a very strict path, where the clergy has great political power and the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice looks after “proper” gender segregation and “good” female behavior, the implementation of this system may seem not so bad. However, more than a few women, and men, are having more than enough of such a control from the government.

  • Muhammah Amreeki

    Thanks for clarifying this interesting, if not confusing, issue. Initial news reports implied that the government was delivering the SMS notifications when a woman dependent of a mahram left the country. Wajeha Al Huwaider further confuses the issue by implying to a media outlet that her husband received a text from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    Now it appears that is not the case at all.Eman Al Nafjan reports on her blog: “As a male guardian you can sign up for an E-service through your bank account to get notifications of any governmental transaction or change. Currently I know that SAMBA bank offers it, and other banks are signing on as well. This service is offered to banks not directly from the government but through a “middle-man” information security company, Al-Elm.”

    Indeed, her links to the security company website makes it clear this is a private enterprise. Granted, there must be some cooperation between the security company and the Saudi government to allow the security company to obtain information, but this is hardly a government operation.

    Wajeha Al Huwaider does a disservice to Saudi women and their efforts to obtain the rights they are entitled to in Islam by deliberately misleading the media into thinking the Saudi government was further abusing the male guardianship laws. In fact, if Eman Al Nafjan is accurate in her report, Al Huwaider’s husband apparently signed up for the service. Simply put: He asked for the service and he wants to keep track of his wife. So Al Huwaider’s beef should be with her husband and not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or even his bank.

    So, at the end of the day we have another round of Saudi bashing based on sketchy information, only to discover some weeks later that there was no grand Saudi government conspiracy to find another way to tether women to their mahrams.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Although your points are all well taken, do you think the government in other countries would allow a husband to sign up for such a service? Probably not. Thus, we can say that although the government might not be the main oppressor, it probably doesn’t mind husbands tracking wifes or male relatives tracking girls. This is an issue that goes beyond a private service, it deals with rights to mobility and personal freedoms. Therefore, if the government really minded women not having the right to leave the country peacefully, they would do something.