Implementation of an Electronic Tracking System Which Notifies the Guardians of Women Who Leave the Country, Prompts a Closer Look Into Saudi Arabia’s Contradictory Approach to Women’s Rights
Understanding tension between advancing women's rights and the fear of change
When we think about the power of text messages today, we focus on the convenience and efficiency of the technology. We focus on sending a simple text message to a friend, family member, or co-worker – letting them know we’re running late, saying happy birthday, asking what time the movie is, wondering how their day was, or telling them congratulations on a job offer they got which we saw them post on Facebook. From a general Western perspective, our technology-reliant society tends to view text messages as a means of facilitating communication and fostering connections.
In November of 2012, Saudi Arabia implemented an electronic tracking system that notifies male guardians with text messages when women leave the country. This use of text messages reaches a new level of intrusion that appears to manipulate a system primarily designed for personal and casual communication. The restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia have been grave, and the power given to male guardians is monumental: “women are treated as legal minors, no matter how old they are. Saudi women can’t study, drive or make education decisions for themselves or their children without the permission of a male “guardian” – a father, husband, brother or son.” It may be difficult for a young generation, who has not had to face the realities of these restrictions, to imagine this vast difference in freedom that women face in Saudi Arabia that seems so contrary to the gender relations in the United States. To picture an adult woman prohibited from being able to independently enjoy the simple basic rights in life such as traveling from place to place, or to have her child given the power over her to make decisions for her, is an irrevocable and detrimental strike to one’s human dignity and being.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) defines human rights as “universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated.” UNFPA stresses that human rights are universal in their existence because “everyone is born with and possesses the same rights, regardless of where they live, their gender or race, or their religious, cultural or ethnic background. [Human rights are] [i]nalienable because people’s rights can never be taken away.” This statement from the UNFPA about human rights is a strong one, and underscores the importance of basic rights across geographic borders. Within this bundle of rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to privacy and the right to freedom of movement. Every single day we exercise these rights whether it be in large or small forms, however it is apparent that location, gender, race, religion, and cultural background still play an unfortunate role in application of these principles.
Saudi Arabia’s new tracking tactic puts serious restrictions on the rights to privacy and freedom of movement, with potentially serious consequences. The implementation of a GPS tracking system that informs a woman’s guardian every time she leaves the country is just the newest front in a long trajectory of policies designed to oppress and denigrate Saudi women. This is directly opposed to the Charter of the United Nations, which resolves to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…” Saudi Arabia’s new policy measure, however, appears only to do the opposite of these commonly adopted goals by continuing to diminish a woman’s dignity and self-worth by treating her body as a piece of property to be tracked, quantified, and controlled by her male counterparts.
In an article by Saudi women’s activist Eman Al Nafjan, Nafjan discusses the complexities in trying to understand what Saudi women really want. Al Nafjan expresses that many Saudi women are not ready for change as “[s]ome explain their indecision as a fear that they might have to assume responsibilities they are incapable of undertaking.” This “fear” the women speak of, the fear of being “incapable”, is disheartening and I believe comes as a result of continuously having their dignity and worth made into a mockery by restrictions placed on their independence. For centuries, these women have been held back from being able to make important decisions for themselves and now many fear they won’t be able to live up to social expectations placed on them if they are treated as equals. The implications of policies such as the electronic text message notification system do much more than just notify a woman’s guardian when she leaves the country. These policies place a veil of weakness and inadequacy on a woman’s spirit by instilling a belief that she is unable to do certain things by herself, falsely equating safety with subordination to a state-defined gender role.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Sa’ud, has emphasized thathe status of a Saudi woman as being a first class citizen, by expressing that the role of a Saudi woman cannot be ignored as her participation in society is at part responsible for development of the country. These assertions, however, require us to take a step back to reflect on what responsibilities Saudi women are really allowed to have in the development of their country: Saudi women are discriminated against, have inferior social status, and “only account for a dismal five percent of the formal workforce [in Saudi Arabia].” “[T]he Saudi government has adopted some initiatives to enhance women’s participation in public life. . . [such as] grant[ing] women the right to obtain licenses to practice law . . . [as well as] . . . [the right] to represent clients in court and to open law firms under their own names.”  While laudable, these new initiatives only seem to enhance a woman’s ability to “participate in public life” without actually validating her contributions nor vindicating her right to self-determination. Saudi Arabia has taken no steps to grant a woman her independence or ability to claim her rights as a woman.
With every step that Saudi Arabia seems to take forward, there is a blatant and devastating step back. This new move by the Saudi government has been criticized by freelance journalist Safa Alahmad as “not only a vicious reminder that Big Brother is watching me but that now he will snitch and tell my ‘guardian’ every time I leave the country.” Alahmad asserts that, “[a]pparently, as a Saudi woman, I don’t even deserve the simplest of rights like the right to privacy.”  This new technology is exacerbating the fact that a woman is not able to make her own decisions and is still treated as a minor in the eyes of her country. Although not all Saudi women may be ready to claim their rights yet, there are others like Alahmad who believe the country has gone too far. The greater worry is how far Saudi Arabia will go in order to make a woman feel subordinate and inferior to her counterpart guardian. Saudi Arabia grants women only minimal rights in order to appear as though they are attempting to push towards a more balanced society, but there is much more that needs to be done before Saudi Arabia can even begin to reach a platform of equality between men and women in legal, social, and cultural life.
 Minky Worden, In Saudi Arabia, women are confined by technology, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Mar. 5, 2013), http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/24/saudi-arabia-women-are-confined-technology
 Human Rights Principles, UNITED NATIONS POPULATION FUND (Mar. 6, 2013) http://www.unfpa.org/rights/principles.htm
 Quotes on Human Rights, UNITED NATIONS POPULATION FUND (Mar. 5, 2013) http://www.unfpa.org/rights/quotes.htm
 Eman Al Nafjan, What Do Saudi Women Want?, FOREIGN POLICY (Mar. 16, 2013) http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/11/28/what_do_saudi_women_want
 Purva Desphande, The Role of Women in Two Islamic Fundamentalist Countries: Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Women’s Rights Law Reporter, 22 Women’s Rts. L. Rep. 193, 198 (Spring 2001)
 Adrien K. Wing, The “Arab Fall”: The Future of Women’s Rights, 18 U.C. Davis J. Int’l L. & Pol’y , 445,455 (Spring 2012)
 See WORDEN, supra note 1
 Luke Harding, Saudi Arabia criticized over text alerts tracking women’s movements, THE GUARDIAN (Mar. 5, 2013) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/23/saudi-arabia-text-alerts-women