TBILISI, Georgia — For more than five years, Maha and Wafa al-Subaie planned their escape from Saudi Arabia.
The sisters hoped to flee their family, which they said was physically abusive and controlled almost every aspect of their lives. This control was facilitated in part by a smartphone app called Absher.
The app can be used to grant or deny permissions for state servicessuch as obtaining a passport or traveling outside the country. The app also offers electronic access to a variety of government services and notifies guardians if women travel beyond Saudi Arabia.
While not mandatory to have, the smartphone app has come to replace the country’s travel permission cards for many women, who under Saudi Arabia’s laws must get approval from a male guardian to obtain a passport or travel abroad.
Even once the sisters were able to leave the country, the sisters worried the app would help their family find them.
“It’s an enemy of women,” Maha al-Subaie, 28, said of the app, which has drawn growing international scrutiny for its role in perpetuating Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system. Under the system, a woman is effectively a minor from birth to death, requiring a male guardian — usually a father, husband or brother — to grant permission for everything, including marriage or travel.
On April 1, the sisters saw their opportunity. They were able to trick the Absher app, enabling them to board the first flights of their life — from the Saudi capital of Riyadh to Istanbul, and then to Trabzon, Turkey. From there, the sisters paid a taxi to take them across the border to Georgia, and now they are living in a third country that they asked not to disclose.
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