Saudi Arabia runs a huge, sinister online database of women that men use to track them and stop them from running away
- Saudi law says every woman must have a male guardian, who has enormous power over her life and travel.
- The Saudi government has digitized parts of the guardian system, letting Saudi men manage women's lives online.
- INSIDER spoke with Shahad al-Mohaimeed, a refugee who navigated this system to flee her family in 2017.
- Guardians can specify when and from which airports women can travel, effectively trapping them in Saudi Arabia.
- The system includes a text-messaging system that alerts men when women use their passports. They are often able to catch them as a result.
- The system has existed for years, but it has come under renewed scrutiny after the high-profile asylum claim of the Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed.
- INSIDER also spoke with activists and women's-rights experts to highlight the full extent of the system.
Shahad al-Mohaimeed got up at midnight to leave her hotel room overlooking the blue water of Trabzon, a Turkish vacation town on the Black Sea. Her family picked the hilly, historic port because it offered a seaside break, but within an Islamic society.
Creeping barefoot out of the bedroom, al-Mohaimeed gathered her family's credit cards, keys, passports, and, crucially, their phones. This would slow them down, she thought, when they tried to follow her.
Her escape had taken a year of planning.
Standing on the road outside the hotel she panicked at the silence. It was the first time in her life she had been outside on her own.
It was also the first time since she was 10 that she had not woken up and put on a full-body covering, either a burqa or a niqab.
"I was 17 and I was so scared, so, so, scared," she recalls. "I left at midnight, and the night was so dark. I was scared of my brother and my family."
Until that moment, al-Mohaimeed had spent the entire 17 years of her life almost constantly in the physical presence of a male guardian, in accordance with the system enshrined in Saudi law.
'When we decide to leave, we decide to put our lives on the line. Because if we don't succeed, our families are going to kill us.'
Her routine was mechanical: wake, school, home, sleep, repeat, she said. Don't talk to, or look at, any man you are not related to. The Quran deemed it indecent, she was told, and her father considered it worthy of a beating.
Under her father's guardianship, she watched her teen brother spend a monthly allowance equivalent to around R20,000 as he pleased, while she begged for money to buy the most basic products. "I couldn't even buy anything for my period," she said. "It was my brother who paid for it, all the time, and he was younger than me."
al-Mohaimeed's mother couldn't access money she earned at her job either, she said. She didn't have a bank account. Her husband took it because, in his view, she wasn't worthy of having her own property. Reflecting on her past life, al-Mohaimeed said bluntly: "That's bulls---."
Speaking with INSIDER, al-Mohaimeed described frequent physical abuse from a father who she said regularly threatened to kill her. Infractions like being seen in the company of men who weren't family would be punished with having her wrists and ankles bound with rope. "My family are an abusive family," she said.
"There is no support for the beaten," she said, "even when it's reported, police are always on the man's side."
Women who get caught running away from the country are regularly never seen again. There are rumors that some have been killed - a prospect al-Mohaimeed saw as all too real.
"When we decide to leave," she said, "we decide to put our lives on the line. Because if we don't succeed, our families are going to kill us. It's shameful to have a daughter leave."
INSIDER has not been able to contact al-Mohaimeed's relatives to ask them about her account.
A sprawling database of women in Saudi Arabia that men use to bar them from travel
As well as physical restrictions and social pressure, al-Mohaimeed had to navigate a sophisticated online system to escape. Her father's phone - the one she stole that night in Trabzon - would have given him access to a Saudi government system called "Absher."
Absher means "the preacher" in Arabic. It is the state-run system that contains the online expression of Saudi Arabia's restrictive male-guardianship laws.
The Absher system - little-discussed in Western media - contains a log of women in Saudi Arabia and the means to bar them from travel or catch them trying to leave without permission.
Many of Absher's functions are benign and would not be out of place in any local or national government online portal. You can use it to pay parking fines or renew a driver's license.
Vitally, Saudi men can also use this site to specify when and where women are allowed to fly out of the country and grant or revoke travel permission with a few clicks, rendering specific airports or destinations off-limits.
Men can also enable an automatic SMS feature, which texts them when a woman uses her passport at a border crossing or airport check-in.
The reason al-Mohaimeed waited for the vacation in Turkey is that she would have little chance of escaping from within Saudi Arabia, where borders are integrated with the Absher alert system.
Any attempt to leave would be blocked as soon as her passport was checked at an airport. Even if she were to make it out, she would leave a digital trail making her easy to find.
At least 1,000 women try to flee Saudi Arabia each year, and experts told INSIDER the text alerts had enabled many men to catch family members before they make it out.
Getting around this system has become a critical step for women like al-Mohaimeed who try to run away from Saudi Arabia.
INSIDER decided to investigate after a flood of interest in Saudi female refugees. The spike was prompted by 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed, whose flight from the kingdom to Thailand became a viral phenomenon.
We have made repeated attempts to contact the Saudi authorities for comment on the system, both directly to the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and via the Saudi embassies in London and Washington.
At the time of publication, none had responded.
'I have 4 hours to leave Turkey before they wake up'
Outside the hotel in Turkey, al-Mohaimeed hoped to find a taxi to take her to the airport, but there were none. So she walked to the nearby hospital to call one. She would board a flight to Australia, she hoped - or anywhere but Saudi Arabia. "I have four hours to leave Turkey before they wake up," she remembers thinking.
Once she was inside a taxi, it took 20 minutes to reach the local airport, an airstrip offering mostly domestic Turkish flights.
Only at the check-in area did she realise there were no departures until 8AM. It would not be enough time.
The Turkish border with Georgia was 113 miles away, via a scenic highway hugging the Black Sea. The former Soviet state, which does not require a visa for Saudi citizens, was the only option she had left. She found another taxi, paid for the ride, and a couple of hours later was handing over her passport to the police at the border, and hoping.
Border guards looked from her face to the passport, and then again. For 15 minutes they kept al-Mohaimeed waiting. "Oh my God, what could happen now?" she recalls thinking.
"It was really a matter of life or death," she told INSIDER. "And when they let me in I was so surprised. I was going to ask them: Really?"
al-Mohaimeed walked into the town from there, but she does not remember its name. She went to sleep locked in a public bathroom.
From there she caught a ride to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and found a room in the city with somebody she met. Her plan was to ask for an Australian tourist visa, which can be applied for online.
She was rejected.
Meanwhile, she knew Saudi diplomatic staff members were looking for her, and Interpol had already come calling to her flatmate.
How Absher works
INSIDER spoke with activists and Saudi refugees about Absher, the computer system that makes fleeing directly from Saudi Arabia so difficult. We also obtained screenshots from the site that show how it works.
Absher is Arabic by default, but it can also be accessed in English.
This image shows the main Absher dashboard where male Saudi guardians add "dependents," meaning women and children:
"Total Dependents Inside" refers to women (and children) who are inside Saudi Arabia.
"Total Dependents Outside" refers to women outside Saudi Arabia, like those studying abroad at a university or on vacation.
A second screenshot, from deeper inside the website, shows a screen for managing travel permissions.
Men can specify numerous journeys women are allowed to take or specify a time period in which they can travel.
Four options are displayed for travel permissions:
- A single journey anywhere.
- A single journey between two specific airports.
- Multiple journeys.
- Permission to travel until the passport expires (a maximum of five years).
Before Absher, Saudi women needed a paper consent form with a guardian's signature, known as a "yellow slip," to pass through customs.
Absher digitized the system, which can give a detailed readout of every journey somebody has made. (Men can view their own travel history as well as those of children and women in their family.)
Here's a screenshot of the passport section on Absher that shows the travel log of a registered passport.
The alert system is one of the main reasons women trying to flee Saudi Arabia get caught, because it tips their guardians off while they can still be apprehended, according to Dr. Taleb al-Abdulmohsen, a Saudi refugee who fled to Germany.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, also told INSIDER about the SMS alerts and corroborated al-Abdulmohsen's story.
When the messages were made compulsory in 2012, Saudis criticized them on social media. The Saudi author and journalist Badriya al-Bishr said: "The authorities are using technology to monitor women. This is technology used to serve backwardness in order to keep women imprisoned." Nonetheless, they continued.
INSIDER located copies of several alerts sent by the Ministry of Interior, which were shared in 2012 when the system was still a novelty.
They all display on phone screens as coming from MOIJawazat. MOI stands for Ministry of Interior, and Jawazat is the name of the Saudi passport and visa office.
This one alerted a guardian that a Saudi businesswoman named Sarah al-Ayed had used her passport to leave Saudi Arabia by plane.
It says: "Sarah number ##### departed from King Abdulaziz Airport on 12-11-2012."
Sarah's guardian was also alerted to another journey she made later in November from the same airport.
This message, sent to Hassan al-Hashemi about his wife Muna, says: "Muna left king AbdulAziz airport on 14-11-2012. Number ****3551."
And this one, sent to a man named Khalid al-Shnanah says: "Exit permit for Sala number ***7698 expires 25-11-2012." This most likely refers to permission a guardian gave to a women to travel for a fixed amount of time.
This string of four messages documents two women, called Danah and Fatima, both listed as dependents under a guardian's page on Absher, leaving and returning to Saudi Arabia from Bahrain over the King Fahad causeway bridge.
The messages say:
Danah (number 8010) has exited via the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Fatima (number 4734) has exited via the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Fatima (number 4734) has entered via the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Danah (number 8010) has entered through the King Fahad causeway on 07/11/2012
Coogle, of Human Rights Watch, told INSIDER: "The text alerts are still happening and that's why they find out so quickly" when women try to escape. Two other experts corroborated this.
Fooling the system
Everyone knows about Absher in Saudi Arabia, al-Abdulmohsen said, and young women are now using a common technique to try to escape.
Saudi women steal their guardian's phone, reset the password, and get a new one in minutes, he said. A few seconds later they have given themselves permission to leave.
"But this is dangerous. If the guardian is thorough, he will regularly check the status of his dependents," he said.
Shahad al-Mohaimeed, the Saudi refugee who spoke with INSIDER about her escape from Turkey, says she now gives advice to those planning to flee, particularly on getting travel permission and avoiding the MOIJawazat SMS alerts.
"Steal the father's phone one night before they fly to make sure it's working," she said from her new home. "Sometimes it doesn't work, or the father has his phone with him all the time, so some girls can't."
Another Saudi refugee, who used only the first name Salwa, told the BBC she used this technique to flee the kingdom.
Yasmine Mohammed, a prominent women's-rights commentator, told INSIDER some women changed the phone number linked to their guardian's Absher account so the alert SMS message would come to their phone instead.
This page on Absher shows how to cancel travel permissions on a dependent's passport:
Even after navigating the technical side, the journey remains difficult and risky.
Refugees, including Rahaf Mohammed, cite the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, who made it to the Philippines in April 2017 but was apprehended by her family and taken back.
About a week after she was caught, Bloomberg reported she was being held in a Saudi correctional facility. Her current whereabouts are unknown.
'Social media is showing women getting out, smiling, surviving'
Despite cautionary tales like this, the support networks between women are strengthening, and escape attempts are on the rise, the experts told INSIDER.
al-Abdulmohsen told INSIDER there were numerous forums and groups where women and girls shared tips for escaping.
"There used to be no girls paying attention to asylum, now they all know about asylum, and they know about escape plans," he said.
"Now they have more chance of being accepted abroad and have more knowledge of the process and evidence to get asylum."
Yasmine Mohammed, the women's-rights commentator, agrees.
"Social media is showing women getting out, smiling, surviving, happy, encouraging other women to get out," she told INSIDER. "It's falsifying the rhetoric Saudi women have been hearing all these years."
More than 1,000 women flee Saudi Arabia each year, Mansour al-Askar of the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University told The Economist in May 2017.
Within Saudi Arabia, guardianship laws are also changing, but very slowly.
As long ago as 2013, Saudi Arabia told the UN it would abolish the male-guardianship system and all discrimination against women.
They have made some changes, according to Human Rights Watch. These include no longer requiring women to provide a guardian's permission to work or needing to bring a male relative to identify them in court.
In April 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told all Saudi government agencies that women should not be blocked from getting government services because they don't have guardian consent, unless regulations require it.
Life is hard, but she cannot go back
It has been two years since Shahad al-Mohaimeed left her hotel in Turkey and ran away from her family.
In Tbilisi, al-Mohaimeed met another refugee, who had also fled from a strict Islamic country. Through this connection, she was put in touch with human-rights activists, who referred her to the UN. She was granted refugee status and, ultimately, a home in Sweden.
She declined to give a precise location, citing safety concerns.
Now, al-Mohaimeed goes to school every day and has a part-time job. She describes Sweden as "a good place" but says living without a family is hard.
But she cannot go back. Even as a 12-year-old, al-Mohaimeed struggled to see the logic in believing God would punish her for exercising freedom of thought. "I didn't belong to this life," she said. "I hated it with all my heart."
She worries about her friends back in Saudi Arabia, some of whom she says are detained in what Saudis know as "protection houses," the same sort of facility that reportedly now houses Dina Ali Lasloom.
"I'm still sacrificing by living here in Sweden," she said. "But it's now who I am. I have seen a lot of things and it's what has made me. I can deal with anyone."
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