Tuesday, June 19, 2012

War on Bloggers

The past fortnight has been an unsettling one for bloggers, writers and activists in Oman. On June 4, a vague statement was released by the Public Prosecution announcing that the number of 'insulting' and 'negative' posts on local blogs and online forums under the pretext of free speech was on the rise. The statement went on to say that anyone caught engaging in such activities and spreading rumours that affect national security will be prosecuted.

A few days later, another statement confirmed that a number of bloggers and activists had been arrested for their online activities and that Omani authorities would not tolerate anyone who uses online platforms to insult, provoke and spread rumours.

The statements make no sense unless you understand what triggered them. Unfortunately though, the powers that be aren't really good at sharing information. After doing a little research through the grapevine, I now have a general idea of who was arrested and why. Regrettably, I can't share that information because then I would be committing the crime of - heaven forbid - spreading rumours!

What I can say is that on June 6, an odd piece was published in a local newspaper confirming that people were spreading negative rumours about our beloved head of state online. That type of criticism is taboo and we all know it.

Another disconcerting interview with the public prosecutor confirmed that they are keeping a watch on all social media platforms in Oman and that bloggers may spend up to two years in jail because the law is clear about such crimes. I tend to disagree. The law is not clear. What exactly constitutes negative writing or rumours? When the government doesn't share information with the public, everything becomes a rumour. As a blogger, I found the recent announcements vague and a little intimidating.

If the authorities are going to go around arresting bloggers for their writing and denying them immediate access to their lawyers, then perhaps they should elaborate more on the fine lines between criticism and insults according to the Omani law. Those of us who value freedom of expression but who are not interested in breaking the law would like to know. In the words of a blogger friend of mine, “How can you threaten people with jail/fines without explicitly setting out what the boundaries are?”

Media publications and the Internet in Oman have always been censored. The protests last year sparked a national discussion about ways to improve this country and handle corruption. For a while, it looked like we'd cracked some major censorship barriers, but now it seems we're back to square one. The days of going out into the streets to demand the removal of key government officials by name are over!

The Public Prosecution announcements were followed by an explosion of debate in the Omani blogosphere. Most bloggers openly condemn the arrests. Naturally, we've also made international headlines this week. A statement from Freedom House last week described the situation as ' a worrying indication of the deteriorating conditions for freedom of expression in Oman'.

Human Rights Watch called this flood of arrests 'A campaign of intimidation' and Amnesty International referred to it as a 'blatant attempt to stamp out freedom of speech'. Rather embarrassing for Oman, don't you think?

Do I believe it's okay to post offensive content online? No. Do I think the heavy handed approach by authorities is going to work? Not really. So what's next? Are they going to pull a Syria on us and block social media platforms altogether? You can't silence people. Not after last year.

I care deeply for my country and its stability. I also believe in the validity of human rights. In the end, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. If the government chooses to ignore that in order to maintain stability within Oman, fine; just educate us first about the law and about our rights. A little transparency goes a long way!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Thobe Budhail

As we survive one of the worst heat waves Salalah has witnessed in the past few years, I am grateful for many things in life. I'm grateful for airconditioners that work.

I am grateful for a demanding office job that keeps me at work until after 5pm when the heat is slightly more bearable and I am able to walk to my car without turning into a puddle in the parking lot. I am grateful for iced tea, sunglasses and cool showers.

Most of all though, I'm grateful for my thobe budhail. If you're not familiar with the term, you're probably new to Oman. Thobe budhail translates into 'Father of the Tail'. Exclusive to the South of Oman, it is basically a loose-fitting square colourful garment with holes for the hands and head. The back of the dress is about a foot longer than the front and it comes with a big matching rectangular headscarf, commonly referred to as a losee or leeso.

There are many folktales attempting to explain the tail at the back of the dress. One common tale tells the story of a man who fell in love with a woman and she refused to marry him. He traced her footsteps to know where she lived and put a curse on her. To protect other girls, a tail was added to the dresses to erase their footsteps.

Another myth has it that a king used to sprinkle magic powder on the ground and any woman whose feet touched the powder would fall madly in love with him. To protect themselves, Dhofari women would use their tail to sweep the powder away. Many Dhofaris tend to agree that a few generations ago the thobe budhail sported a leather tail to erase women’s footsteps in the sand when they were out herding their animals.

Regardless of how it all started, the tradition of the thobe budhail is still going strong in Dhofar. Every single female over the age of about 12 wears the thobe budhail at home at all times. That goes pretty much without exception. Even babies wear them occasionally! They are available in every type of material imaginable from delicate silk to denim. Day-today thobes are cotton and come in a thousand different prints from delicate flower prints to wild African designs.

Some even have designer brand names illegally printed all over them. Recently, I saw someone wearing a thobe that had ‘Blackberry’ written all over it. I’ve also seen Prada, Louis Vuitton and Versace. Day-to-day thobes cost about RO3 each and are worn by all females; rich and poor, young and old. My wardrobe at home hosts about 40 of them.

For special occasions, women may don thobes made of slightly more expensive material. Wedding thobes are usually made of velvet and have a million little crystals sewn onto them. These can cost up to RO500. Since women in Dhofar are very much into fashion, the thobe budhail business is always thriving. There is an entire section of Salalah's main stretch – Al Salaam Street - dedicated to thobe budhail shops. It is lined with about 40 or 50 shops selling different prints.

A colleague of mine who used to own one of the shops on that stretch told me that during the weeks before Eid, he would sell up to 500 thobes a day in his tiny shop. The only argument against this popular garment is that it’s not very practical, especially for active women. I’ve almost mastered the art of skilfully hitching it up while doing housework, but it can be a nuisance sometimes. Wearing them can also enhance weight gain in my opinion because it conceals pretty much everything. You also need to replace them regularly because their lifespan is short. I’m not a big fan of shopping, so I usually buy five to ten at a time.

As far as I’m concerned, the advantages of wearing them completely outweigh the disadvantages. They’re beautiful. The way they flow is extremely elegant and feminine. They’re comfortable. They’re affordable. In extreme situations, they act as a mobile dressing room. They're great gifts. Last but not least, they’re perfect for hot weather. Did I already mention that I’m not a fan of heat waves? Monsoon in Dhofar is 17 days away!

Published June 5, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the column on the newspaper's website.