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Saudi Arabia's unsolicited monitoring of women's travels draws activists' outrage

A fully veiled Saudi woman walks into a mall in Riyadh. Women's "guardians" are notified whenever one leaves the country.

Story highlights

  • In Saudi Arabia, every women of any age has a male "guardian"
  • The government set up an electronic monitoring program in 2010 for women's travel abroad
  • The guardian could request to be notified if his dependent left the country
  • But now, men are being notified -- even if they never asked for the information

When word started spreading last week that Saudi women -- already some of the most oppressed and restricted in the world -- were being monitored electronically as they left the country, activists were quick to express their outrage.

"It's very shameful," said Manal Al-Sharif, who became an icon of female empowerment in 2011 after defying the conservative kingdom's driving ban and encouraging other Saudi women to do the same.

Al-Sharif was one of the first prominent Saudis to start tweeting about the electronic monitoring issue -- describing the shock experienced by a couple she knew after the husband received a text message alerting him his wife had left Saudi Arabia, even though they were traveling out of the country together.

What surprised and disturbed them most, Al-Sharif told CNN, was the fact that the husband had not registered with the Interior Ministry to begin receiving such notifications.

"It shows how women are still being treated as minors," added Al-Sharif. She went on to explain how, even though a notification system has actually been in place since 2010, before last week, a male guardian would have had to specifically request the service from the country's Interior Ministry before receiving such messages.

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In recent years, much has been made of the fact that Saudi Arabia is the sole remaining country in which women still have not been given the right to drive. But restrictions experienced by Saudi females extend to far more than just getting behind the wheel. In the deeply conservative kingdom, a woman is not allowed to go to school, get a job, or even travel outside the country without first obtaining the permission of her male "guardian," or mahram.

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In Saudi Arabia, every woman has a male guardian -- traditionally her father, husband or brother.

But the country's guardianship system doesn't just apply to women -- underage children, as well as foreign workers, also must be granted permission before being allowed outside the country's borders.

In the past few years, the country's Interior Ministry has been introducing "e-government" initiatives to simplify tracking of dependents with technology and to make it easier for guardians to allow their dependents to leave the country.

One such program was introduced in 2010 -- guardians could sign up for a service that would notify them electronically once any of their dependents, be they, wives, children or workers, had left the country. The information would be sent out once any of these dependents had their passports scanned and crossed any of the country's borders.

It was only over the course of the last week, however, that text messages started getting sent even to men who hadn't signed up for this service.

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Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi writer and blogger, told CNN that the electronic monitoring controversy is a complicated issue that has been somewhat misunderstood -- that this is simply the latest iteration of an antiquated guardianship system Saudi women have had to live with for far too long.

"Why is it being technologically implemented and being updated?" asked Al Nafjan. "Why is it not being phased out? That's the real question."

And it's a question that's been asked more and more in the last several years by activists who say Saudi Arabia's strict guardianship laws only serve to infantilize women and strip them of any freedoms.

For Al Nafjan, the electronic monitoring is a serious matter, but one that has overshadowed something far more important:

"This (male guardianship) system enables exploitation of women -- it's government-sanctioned exploitation," said Al Nafjan, adding how Saudi laws enable men to exert complete control over their female dependents.

"It's a power that's being used over women," explained Al Nafjan, who strongly advocates ending the guardianship system. "Women are not free. No matter how old you are, you're always a minor. It's almost like slavery. Guardianship is practically ownership."

Al-Sharif, for her part, wondered why there aren't e-government services in place in Saudi Arabia to assist women who are in trouble, "to help women go file complaints against their abusers if their actual guardians won't go with them."

"Women should use this to make some noise," added Al-Sharif, "rock the boat, and say enough is enough."

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