Opinion

DHILLON: Will Google And Apple Answer For Helping To Oppress Saudi Women?

Harmeet K. Dhillon Republican National Lawyers Association

Like a fashionable Saudi woman dressed in the highest heels and the latest chic fashions at home but donning a drab burqa to venture out, Big Tech cloaks its shiny principles of equality and inclusion behind a veil when seeking business abroad. In the most recent public example of gross hypocrisy, two of Silicon Valley’s leading sultans of PC — Google and Apple — peddle a woman-controlling app in their online stores, allowing male guardians in the medieval Saudi culture to digitally adjust how much freedom their women are allowed.

To be a woman in Saudi Arabia is to constantly live under the thumb of a male guardian. Regardless of wealth, education or socioeconomic class, women are not allowed to travel without their father, brother, uncle, husband, or son’s consent. They cannot get married, enroll in school, get a passport, or sign a contract without male permission.

Enter Absher, a mobile app designed by the Saudi Interior Ministry which, among other things, allows male guardians to track, limit and prohibit a woman’s travel. 14 Democrat members of Congress signed a letter to Google and Apple’s CEOs, stating, “Twenty-first century innovations should not perpetuate sixteenth-century tyranny.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a similar letter, stating, “It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women, but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy.” Apple CEO Tim Cook said he would “take a look” at the app weeks ago (he was still looking as of February 28), but Google refused to take down the app, saying it met all of its terms of use.

Some Saudis claim that the app makes life easier, eliminates bureaucracy, and streamlines travel. These, presumably, are the women whose more enlightened guardians grant them consent to move freely. For other women, the app can be used to severely restrict their movement. The women most in need of protection — those fleeing abuse or domestic violence, seeking asylum in a country which would grant them the freedoms western women have enjoyed for centuries — are the ones whose digital geofencing Google and Apple enable through such apps.

Despite restrictions placed on women through Absher and less modern means, Saudi Arabia claims to be making progress on women’s rights. In 2018, women were finally granted the right to drive, and this January, the government passed a law requiring husbands to notify wives (via text message) if they were being divorced. These small advances are properly viewed against a backdrop of brutal authoritarianism in which women can be brutally beaten or killed for not adhering to a strict dress code, and where her testimony is worth only half of a man’s.

Saudi Arabia agreed to end the male guardianship system at the United Nations Human Rights Council in both 2009 and 2013. A decade later, Saudi women are still waiting. Absher is another black eye for Google on the heels of other scandals calling its progressive rhetoric into question. In February, Google shareholders submitted a resolution asking the company to examine the human rights implications of its highly controversial Dragonfly project, which would provide a censored search engine in China, allowing the government to monitor (and repress) its citizens. Google has also begun caving to pressure from the Russian government to censor certain websites, and other countries are now also demanding custom-censored search engines to help control their people.

Google removed a religious app whose goal was, among other things, “getting rid of homosexuality,” yet an app that allows men to track the every move of the women of the Saudi kingdom is a bridge too far. Given that the Saudi government routinely deploy barbaric practices such as flogging, stoning, amputations, and public beheadings to keep its citizens in line, the flourishing of a woman-controlling app on American-made digital platforms may seem like a marginal, even symbolic decrease in liberty.

Saudis will subjugate their women with or without the app — but the hypocrisy Google and Apple demonstrate throws into clear relief the fact that all the rhetoric and genuflecting to progressive ideals at home, are hidden behind a veil abroad in pursuit of the riyal, the yuan, the ruble, and situational ethics.

Harmeet K. Dhillon (@Pnjabanis the Republican National Committeewoman from California and vice president of communications for the Republican National Lawyers Association. She is a partner at the Dhillon Law Group.

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