RIYADH - Agence France-Presse
In a picture taken November 19, 2012, a Saudi woman carries shopping bags as she leaves the Olaya mall in Riyadh. AFP photo
Denied the right to travel without consent from their male guardians and banned
from driving, women in Saudi Arabia are now monitored by an electronic system
that tracks any cross-border movements.
Since last week, Saudi women’s male guardians began receiving text messages
on their phones informing them when women under their custody leave the country,
even if they are travelling together.
Manal al-Sherif, who became the symbol of a campaign launched last year
urging Saudi women to defy a driving ban, began spreading the information on
Twitter, after she was alerted by a couple.
The husband, who was travelling with his wife, received a text message from
the immigration authorities informing him that his wife had left the
international airport in Riyadh.
“The authorities are using technology to monitor women,” said columnist
Badriya al-Bishr, who criticised the “state of slavery under which women are
held” in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
Women are not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission from their male
guardian, who must give his consent by signing what is known as the “yellow
sheet” at the airport or border.
The move by the Saudi authorities was swiftly condemned on social network
Twitter — a rare bubble of freedom for millions in the kingdom — with critics
mocking the decision.
“Hello Taliban, herewith some tips from the Saudi e-government!” read one
“Why don’t you cuff your women with tracking ankle bracelets too?” wrote
“Why don’t we just install a microchip into our women to track them around?”
“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,” tweeted Hisham.
“This is technology used to serve backwardness in order to keep women
imprisoned,” said Bishr, the columnist.
“It would have been better for the government to busy itself with finding a
solution for women subjected to domestic violence” than track their movements
into and out of the country.
Saudi Arabia applies a strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, and
is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.
In June 2011, female activists launched a campaign to defy the ban, with many
arrested for doing so and forced to sign a pledge they will never drive
No law specifically forbids women in Saudi Arabia from driving, but the
interior minister formally banned them after 47 women were arrested and punished
after demonstrating in cars in November 1990.
Last year, King Abdullah — a cautious reformer — granted women the right to
vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, a historic first for the
In January, the 89-year-old monarch appointed Sheikh Abdullatif Abdel Aziz
al-Sheikh, a moderate, to head the notorious religious police commission, which
enforces the kingdom’s severe version of sharia law.
Following his appointment, Sheikh banned members of the commission from
harassing Saudi women over their behaviour and attire, raising hopes a more
lenient force will ease draconian social constraints in the country.
But the kingdom’s “religious establishment” is still to blame for the
discrimination of women in Saudi Arabia, says liberal activist Suad
“Saudi women are treated as minors throughout their lives even if they hold
high positions,” said Shemmari, who believes “there can never be reform in the
kingdom without changing the status of women and treating them” as equals to
But that seems a very long way off.
The kingdom enforces strict rules governing mixing between the sexes, while
women are forced to wear a veil and a black cloak, or abaya, that covers them
from head to toe except for their hands and faces.
The many restrictions on women have led to high rates of female unemployment,
officially estimated at around 30 percent.
In October, local media published a justice ministry directive allowing all
women lawyers who have a law degree and who have spent at least three years
working in a lawyer’s office to plead cases in court.
But the ruling, which was to take effect this month, has not been