BEIRUT, Lebanon – A Saudi mobile app that allows men to track and restrict women's movements in the kingdom has been increasingly discussed this week by an American senator and human rights groups urging Apple and Google to remove from their platforms, accusing the tech giants of facilitating gender discrimination.

Saudi "Laws of guardianship" give women a legal status similar to that of minors in many areas of their lives. Every Saudi woman, regardless of her age, has a male "guardian", usually her father or husband, but sometimes her brother or son, who must give her permission to obtain a passport, to undergo certain procedures medical or get married.

The application in question, called Absher, was launched in 2015 by the Saudi government. It allows men to manage women under their guardianship by giving or revoking their right to travel to airports, by searching for them through their national identity card or passports. Men can activate notifications that alert them with a text message whenever a woman placed under their guardians passes through an airport.

Absher, which translates roughly to "yes sir," can be downloaded from Google Play Store and Apple App Store, which critics say makes tech companies complicit in the crackdown on Saudi women.

Efforts to remove Absher from the platforms were spurred this week by Senator Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, who asked in a letter to both companies.

"This is not news that the Saudi monarchy is seeking to restrain and repress Saudi women, but US companies should not allow or facilitate the patriarchy of the Saudi government," Wyden wrote in a statement. letter, published on Monday.

Addressing Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, CEOs of Apple and Google, Wyden said the companies "are easing control of Saudi family members through their smartphones and allows them to restrict their movement ".

He asked them to prevent their companies from being "used by the Saudi government to allow for the surveillance and heinous control of women".

Representatives from Apple and the Saudi government did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A Google spokesperson confirmed that the company was evaluating the application to determine if it was in accordance with its rules.

Saudi Arabia has one of the most restrictive environments in the world for women, although Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his de facto leader, has been trying to relax some of the strains since his father, King Salman, mounted on the throne in 2015.

Since then, the kingdom has eased restrictions on women's dress, expanded the range of women's areas of work, and started offering physical education classes to girls in public schools. Last year, Saudi Arabia lifted long-standing ban on female drivers, a movement hailed as a major step.

But critics say that Saudi women can not achieve equality as long as the kingdom maintains its guardianship laws. Saudi officials say such restrictions are rooted in their culture and supported by many people in the kingdom.

Asked about the problem in an interview last yearPrince Mohammed said Saudi Arabia must "find a way to deal with this situation without harming families and culture".

Absher, which can be used by Saudi nationals and residents of the kingdom, is more generally an online portal that allows men and women to access a range of government services ranging from payment of fines to demand. new identity cards. The controls on women are only one of its functions.

The crackdown on Saudi women made headlines last month when a 18-year-old Saudi man, Rahaf Alqunun, it's barricaded in a hotel room at Bangkok airport to avoid being returned to his family. She had escaped from her family while on vacation in Kuwait and had flown to Thailand but had been stopped at the airport. She then obtained asylum in Canada.

Another Saudi woman who had fled the kingdom for Australia described using his father's phone secretly to access Absher and allow himself to travel, allowing him to leave the country undetected.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have long advocated for the repeal of guardianship laws, but Absher targeting and its availability on Western technology platforms is new.

Hala Aldosary, a Saudi-based academic and activist based in the United States, said the removal of the app by Apple and Google could send an important message to leaders such as Prince Mohammed, who sought partnerships with drug companies. global technologies in order to improve their performance. savings.

"If technology companies said," You're oppressive, "that would mean a lot," said Aldosary.

But removing the enforcement would not get rid of the country's guardianship laws, she said, and men could still change the status of their family online or in government offices.

"The application is a means to an end, but it is not the end," she said. "But it makes life easier for the guards."

Asked about Absher en an interview with the national public radio On Monday, Mr. Cook from Apple said he had not heard of it.

"But of course, we'll take a look at it if it's the case," he said.

But both companies responded to similar campaigns to remove apps.

In December, Apple withdrew a religious app from its online store that described being gay as "a disease" and "a sin" as a result of a campaign by a gay rights group, Good King News reported.