IT has happened again. Hot on the heels of the “tanim-bala” (bullet-planting) scandal victimizing hapless airport travelers and the sad and frustrating news of yet another murder of a Filipino journalist, a new embarrassment out of the Philippines is making the rounds among the international media: The minor furor raised by Joey de Leon’s and Sen. Tito Sotto’s choice of Halloween costumes during an episode of the popular noontime show Eat Bulaga earlier this week.
A picture of the pair decked out in traditional Arab Muslim wear was posted to the show’s Twitter page and attracted more than 3,000 comments, at which point it attracted the attention of the BBC’s Trending page, which follows popular social media topics around the world. And of course, once the BBC knows about something, the rest of the world will shortly know about it, too.
The reason the appearance attracted so much attention was because of the angry reaction it elicited from Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), who demanded an official apology from the show because “This display betrays an insensitivity by these hosts, as they equated the Muslim garb as a costume to be feared, in the way that zombies and ghouls are to be feared.”
With all due respect to Gov. Hataman, his taking offense to the display is a bit ridiculous. The outfit, for those who may not know, is common everyday garb for many of the more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world; the ankle-length robe, fitted at the top like a dress shirt, is called a thobe, while the headscarf is called a ghutra, or kaffiyeh, fixed in place with a rope called an egal. It is garb that falls between casual and formal – suitable for business wear, nicer functions, or a visit to the mosque, but not as formal as the bisht, a more ornate robe roughly analogous to our own barong tagalog.
The outfit is sometimes given to non-Muslim visitors or guests as a gift – which is how Tito Sotto said he obtained his – and so wearing it is equivalent of wearing that nice sweater your grandmother sent you for Christmas. Given that there is no particularly strong religious significance attached to it, wearing it on Halloween is no more meant to be frightening or offensive than dressing as a princess or a fireman unless the wearer goes out of his way to try to make it frightening, which Sotto and de Leon certainly did not.
Gov. Hataman should also understand – it would be fair, given the official and in our view very appropriate respect this country strives to extend to the holidays of our Muslim brethren – that the three-day holiday of Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day here in the Philippines is a mixture of the somber and the festive; we honor and offer our prayers to our dearly departed, and we have a little fun by wearing a costume to the party. That’s how it works, and it is not inherently intended to offend anyone.
Having said all that, with the world’s attention focused on a great deal of turmoil emanating from the Arab world at present – a bitter war in Syria that has produced millions of refugees, the depredations of the Islamic State terrorist group, civil war in Yemen – Sotto’s and de Leon’s choice of costume for a very public program may not have been the best decision, though no harm was intended. It was not wrong, but a little sensitivity to current events would have gone a long way. If either the Eat Bulaga hosts or Gov. Hataman had exercised that, perhaps then the Philippines would not now be the subject of yet another pointlessly uncomplimentary bit of world news.