As a 16 year old who just got her driver’s license, I’ve been hearing about phone apps that text anxious parents with their kids’ whereabouts. Most of my friends consider this kind of system a drag, and probably enough to curb any Jack Kerouac-like plans to hit the road. But a new development in Saudi Arabia puts any such Western teenage grumbling to shame: the Saudi government has introduced an electronic tracking system that alerts male guardians when a woman strays too far from home.
The “wife tracker” or “digital leash” as some refer to it, reduces women to the legal status of a minor, and is just the latest restriction on the movement of women — and of the women’s movement — in a culture ruled by harsh sharia law.
As I reflect on a remarkable year of political uprisings and grassroots movements across the globe, I can’t help but think about the troubling status quo for women and girls who still struggle for basic freedoms.
In Saudi Arabia, women and girls can’t currently vote, date, marry for love, use contraceptives, ride bicycles, talk to men on the phone, sing or dance in public. Unless chaperoned by a mahram (male guardian), girls — covered in black abayas — are carted around behind tinted windows to special women-only gyms, boutiques, malls, schools, and restaurants (where they eat in the “family section,” apart from single men). The Mutawwa’in, the religious police, fine or even imprison dissenters. Victims of domestic violence and rape are often punished with lashes. Isolation is so intense that some feel that society is split between “two different species.”
Just below the surface, desperation percolates. A study at King Saud University reported that out of 100 suicide cases, 96 involved women—many women, wrestling with restrictions on work, travel, and school, attempt suicide to escape Saudi Arabia’s strict society. The Saudi authorities actually instituted the SMS tracking system when one Saudi woman tried to flee to Sweden — the kind of escape most Western women take for granted. Male guardians monitor the women in their custody — wives, daughters, sisters — for any attempts to cross the border. They receive a text message alerting them of their female’s activity.
Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia did not even make The Daily Beast’s top 10 list of the worst places to be a woman. It was surpassed by Chad, where women are married off at age 11 without legal rights, by Afghanistan, where 90% of women are illiterate, by Yemen, where domestic violence is perfectly legal, and by Congo, where 1,100 women are raped every day.
Although the statistics are grim, there may be glimmers of hope in stories like that of Malala Yousafzai, who at just 11 years old braved Taliban threats to blog about the constraints on girls’ education in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. Her courage almost cost Malala her life when Taliban militants pulled her out of her school bus, and shot her in the head. Since her recovery, Malala has become a symbol for women’s education and rights across the globe. “Where in the Quran does it say that girls should not be educated?” Malala writes. “I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to go to market. I have the right to speak up.”
In backward societies where girls never graduate from their minor status, Malala shows that speaking up can be a powerful way to move forward.
Saudi Portrait: Edward Musiak