* U.S. audio chatroom app proves popular in Middle East
* Clubhouse provides rare forum for open debate on taboo subjects
* Users, analysts wary of wider crackdown by governments
By Menna A. Farouk and Timour Azhari
CAIRO/BEIRUT, April 7 (Openly) - Audio chatroom app Clubhouse is on the rise in the Arab world, providing a rare platform for open debate on taboo subjects from so-called honour killings in Egypt to sexual identity in Iraq, but with some authorities restricting use and others wary.
The app launched by a San Francisco-based company last year allows people to discuss varied topics in chatrooms, with its popularity surging after appearances by billionaires Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and its use now rising in the Middle East.
"I knew I had certain leanings, but here I can express it more because people respect difference," an Iraqi woman, who identified as pansexual, said during a recent debate in one of the app's "rooms" where anyone can speak on the chosen topic.
"Hopefully it can be the same in our countries," she said, explaining that she had only felt able to explore her non-traditional sexuality when she had left the Middle East.
But as Arab fans embrace Clubhouse as a means to broach matters seldom discussed in public, some fear a broad clampdown by authoritarian governments in the region after Jordan and Oman blocked access to the San Francisco-based app last month.
Clubhouse did not respond to a request for comment but the fast-growing app has already drawn the ire of governments in Asia.
In February China blocked access to Clubhouse after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored on sensitive issues such as Xinjiang detention camps, Taiwan independence and Hong Kong's National Security Law.
Also in February Thailand warned users of Clubhouse not to break the law after the app emerged as a platform for discussion of the monarchy, and Indonesia warned Clubhouse could be banned if it failed to comply with local regulations.
Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor of digital humanities and societies at Qatar's Hamad Bin Khalifa University, said the app could soon see its "honeymoon" in Arab states come to an end as the number of users kept rising.
"The newness creates moments where people feel free to say things they wouldn't ordinarily do for fear of retaliation from the state," Jones told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"People let their guard down and perhaps forget that the political context in which they live hasn't changed," he said, adding that a few cases of state intervention could have a "chilling" effect on speech.
Oman blocked the app last month, saying it did not have the right operating permit. Local media in Jordan reported that the country had taken similar steps to restrict access.
Jordan's Ministry of Information and Communications did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"RIP, Clubhouse" one Omani Twitter user wrote weeks after praising the newly popular app as a means to promote dialogue across entrenched boundaries of social class or gender.
Launched in early 2020, the app has grown quickly in socially conservative Arab countries and was the most downloaded app in Saudi Arabia in February.
Clubhouse has not published a regional breakdown of its users, but business data website Statista said downloads of the app in Europe, the Middle East and Africa overtook the Americas region in February.
Fans of the platform say it puts users on a somewhat equal footing, flattening hierarchies on other social media such as Twitter and Facebook, where those with a large following can sway the narrative.
During a recent debate in one of the app's rooms, titled "Feminism and Homosexuality in Iraq", Iraqis tackled misconceptions about being gay, such as false associations with paedophilia, and whether Muslims could be LGBT+.
Despite differences of opinion, the conversation was reasoned and the participants were respectful.
When one woman said she would never accept homosexuality as normal, an openly transgender woman replied: "You don't have to accept us, just respect us."
In Egypt, which rights groups say has witnessed increased curbs on free speech under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the app has been hosting debate recently about a contentious bill that critics fear would stifle women's rights.
"We're in 2021 and still a woman in Egypt will not be able to travel without the consent of her husband or her father. What shame!" said one woman in a room created to discuss the draft personal status law.
Last month, Sisi called on lawmakers to ensure the law was more balanced and protects women's rights.
The app's popularity may have troubled governments shaken by the 2011 "Arab Spring" protests, which were facilitated by the use of Facebook and Twitter, said Fady Ramzy, a social media instructor at the American University of Cairo.
Users in the United Arab Emirates have reported connectivity issues in recent weeks, with many saying that they could only access it using virtual private networks, or VPNs.
Mohamad Najem, director of Beirut-based digital rights NGO SMEX, said his organisation suspected the app had been blocked in the UAE or that connectivity had been otherwise impeded.
The UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But while some of the app's users wonder how long the forum will last in their countries, Clubhouse debates in Arabic are flourishing for now - with few subjects off-limits.
In a recent room created in Egypt after the death of a woman who was allegedly killed because a man was seen in her house, Egyptian women decried "honour" killings, which are usually committed by victims' relatives.
"What does that have to do with honour?" one woman said. "Is it really moral to throw a woman from the balcony of her home and kill her because a man was at her place?
(Reporting by Menna A. Farouk and Timour Azhari @timourazhari Editing by Helen Popper and Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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