'It's an enemy of women': Saudi sisters recount how an app kept them down — until they tricked it

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 services such 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.

Even once they 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.

Related: Saudi women take the wheel as decades-old driving ban ends 

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Saudi women take the wheel as decades-old driving ban ends
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Saudi women take the wheel as decades-old driving ban ends
A Bahrain women's group from Yalla Banat arrives in Saudi from a bridge to celebrate with Saudi women the lifting of the driving ban on women, in east Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Bahraini and Saudi women celebrate the lifting of the driving ban on women in east Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Bahraini and Saudi women celebrate the lifting of the driving ban on women in east Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Bahraini Nouf Al Maloud (R) hugs Saudi Zahoor Assiri (L) as they arrive in east Saudi in their cars to promote and congratulate Saudi women on the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Bahraini woman Eman Mohammed takes a selfie with her phone as she celebrates with Saudi and Bahraini women the lifting of the driving ban on women, in east Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, drives her car to work, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Saudi woman celebrates as she drives her car in her neighborhood, in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Dr Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, drives her car out in her neighborhood while going to work, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, wait to get coffee as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Majdooleen, who is among the first Saudi women allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, drives her car in her neighborhood in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Sarah Dadouch
Saudi women celebrate after they drove their cars in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
A Saudi woman celebrates with her friends as she drives her car in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Zuhoor Assiri gestures as she drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Zuhoor Assiri drives her car in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, reacts as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, reacts as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, smiles while making a stop to refuel her car as she drives to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Majdooleen, who is among the first Saudi women allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, drives her mother to work in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
Samira al-Ghamdi, a practicing psychologist, drives to work with her son Abdulmalik, 26, sitting behind, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Hala Hussein Alireza, a newly-licensed Saudi motorist, opens the door of a car before leaving her driveway in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah early on June 24, 2018. - Saudi Arabia ended its longstanding ban on women driving on June 24, 2018 -- and the second the clock struck midnight, women across the country started their engines. (Photo by Amer HILABI / AFP) (Photo credit should read AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Hala Hussein Alireza, a newly-licensed Saudi motorist, drives a car on a main road in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah early on June 24, 2018. - Saudi Arabia ended its longstanding ban on women driving on June 24, 2018 -- and the second the clock struck midnight, women across the country started their engines. (Photo by Amer HILABI / AFP) (Photo credit should read AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Hala Hussein Alireza, a newly-licensed Saudi motorist, drives a car in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah early on June 24, 2018. - Saudi Arabia ended its longstanding ban on women driving on June 24, 2018 -- and the second the clock struck midnight, women across the country started their engines. (Photo by Amer HILABI / AFP) (Photo credit should read AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images)
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - JUNE 24: Nada Edlibi holds up her Saudi Arabian driver's license on the first day that she is legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has today lifted its ban on women driving, which had been in place since 1957. The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society. The reforms also seek to empower women by restoring them basic legal rights, allowing them increasing independence and encouraging their participation in the workforce. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - JUNE 24: Nada Edlibi poses for a photo next to her husband's Porsche Panamera that she took for a spin on the first day that she is legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 'Today is such a historical day, we've been waiting for this for such a long time,' she said. Saudi Arabia has today lifted its ban on women driving, which had been in place since 1957. The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society. The reforms also seek to empower women by restoring them basic legal rights, allowing them increasing independence and encouraging their participation in the workforce. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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The al-Subaie sisters have joined a growing group of women who successfully fled Saudi Arabia in search of greater freedoms. Others haven't been as lucky.

Despite some reforms giving new rights to women, the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia remains mostly intact, including limitations on travel.

Growing international attention paid to women in Saudi Arabia has also included scrutiny of the Saudi government-backed Absher app, and of the major technology companies that allow it to be available on their platforms. Sometimes referred to as the "wife-tracking app," Absher was launched in 2015 to grant Saudi citizens digital access to government ministry services and simplify bureaucratic tasks, such as renewing a passport or registering a vehicle.

But for Saudi men, Absher also includes an additional feature called "dependent services," which allows male guardians to restrict travel by their female "dependents."

"I am so tired of fighting for small things, fighting for my rights," Maha al-Subaie said during an interview in April near her safehouse outside Georgia's capital of Tbilisi.

The Absher app has been the focus of intense criticism in recent months, particularly in the United States. In February, a group of Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to Apple and Google, both of which host the app in their stores, demanding that they remove it. The companies declined to take action.

Apple declined to comment for this story. Google did not return a request for comment.

The app, however, is not foolproof. Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit organization that has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia's guardianship rules, said that it had found at least three cases in which Saudi women were able to access the phones of their guardians and change their travel settings.

Maha and Wafa al-Subaie, didn't want to reveal how they hacked Absher. Exposing the loopholes, they explained, could lead to a guardian taking steps to protect his account.

"We need to help other women," Wafa al-Subaie, 25, said.

Human Rights Watch does not currently support the removal of the app, noting "that could lead to unintended negative consequences for some women who may surreptitiously change travel permissions or halt text message alerts on their male guardian's phone."

Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at Waterloo University in Canada, also noted that the app has afforded women in Saudi Arabia more freedom than in the past.

"What was in place before the app was basically a bureaucratic nightmare for women to get their guardian's approval," Momani said. "A guardian had to go to a local office, fill out paperwork and that is cumbersome. The reality of life is that no one wants to undertake those kind of bureaucratic measures, so an app, ironically, I think makes it easier for women."

In early May, the sisters were finally able to leave Georgia. After a month spent in limbo, they finally received asylum in a third country. They want to keep their new home a secret out of fear that their family will find them.

Speaking from their new home, the sisters say they are excited and a little overwhelmed.

"I feel like I'm still dreaming," Wafa al-Subaie said via text message.

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