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.