Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Late Sultan Qaboos’s Legacy And What’s Next For Oman

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Late Sultan Qaboos of Oman | Source: U.S. Department of State via Flickr

On the morning of January 11, 2020, the citizens of Oman awoke to the news that Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the monarch of the small Gulf nation, had passed away the previous day after a 49-year rule.

The late Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, after he overthrew his conservative father in a palace coup with the help of the British. He then set about modernising his impoverished country, using Oman’s newfound oil wealth to fund its infrastructure. When he took over the throne, Oman had only three schools and harsh laws banning electricity, radios, eyeglasses and even umbrellas. By the time he left, Oman developed a good education system, a robust economy, and has become a tourist destination.

Apart from bringing about this ‘renaissance,’ Qaboos also gained worldwide fame for championing neutrality and constructive diplomacy. Despite being located in the Strait of Hormuz in the turbulent Middle East, he maintained relations with countries ranging from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Israel, and Palestine, and also with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Perhaps the greatest result of this long-standing policy was enabling backchannel talks between the US and Iran which led to an international nuclear deal.

Sultan Qaboos also introduced democratic institutions in Oman, issuing the country’s first constitution, granting universal suffrage to all citizens above 21, and allowing the country’s first municipal elections in December 2012. However, he also suppressed dissent to the extent of shutting down news outlets and arresting protestors, journalists and activists, sometimes for opinions expressed on social media.

Oman experienced ripple effects of the Arab Spring in the form of months of protests against corruption and unemployment; and eventually Sultan Qaboos relented by giving more legislative powers to the Council of Oman and promising to increase wages and create jobs. While this satisfied the protestors, it did not mean life under ‘Baba Qaboos’ was all roses and no thorns for everyone. As detailed in this 2020 Periodic Review by Human Rights Watch, Sultan Qaboos revised Oman’s penal code in January 2018, which included “increasing punishments for offenses that relate to the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.

The last few years of Qaboos’ rule saw economic stagnation and a crash in global oil prices which resulted in high youth unemployment rates  in a country where a significant portion of the population is under the age of 25. The large budget deficits and high debt have prompted the rating agencies such as Moody’s to downgrade Oman’s credit rating to ‘junk’ status. In an attempt to reduce the dependence on oil, Sultan Qaboos launched ‘Vision 2020’ to encourage innovation in other areas. This initiative failed to meet the objective and got renamed as ‘Vision 2040.’

This was the scene laid out for the new Sultan Haitham Bin Tarik, who was designated the new ruler of Oman as per a secret envelope containing late Sultan Qaboos’ choices for his successor.

Haitham bin Tarik was the Minister of Heritage and Culture before his accession to the throne, and also happens to have been the Chairman of the ‘Vision 2040’ committee, among other posts. In his first royal speech, he vowed to continue in the footsteps of his predecessor, especially in regards to the state’s foreign policy. In another royal speech in February, he charted a ‘future roadmap’ for Oman and claimed that he will prioritize education and youth employment. He has been active in these past six months, having issued 70 Royal Decrees concerning appointments, amendments, and new laws, among others.

Sultan Haitham is already being put to the test as Oman battles the COVID-19 along with the rest of the world. Omanis are looking at a new vision with renewed hope, one of the new sultan who brings with him great promises and perhaps a renaissance of its own kind. Will Oman be able to maintain its tradition of neutrality? Will the fight for a progressive and inclusive Oman find its voice? Will Oman be able to save itself from the consequences of a glut in crude oil economy? The citizens of Oman hope and wish that their new sultan will get the right answer and steer the country towards a more secure and prosperous future.

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October 23, 2020 3:57 PM

Male gaze, their female guardians and sports-wear

In Helen Cixous’ essay, ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, she urges women to redefine what their body means to them, not just physically but also socially, emotionally and politically. This could happen by re-writing about your body in a way you deem  fit, the expression you identify with and separating it from how your body has been written about by men. The expression could be how you view your body separate from the patriarchal lense.

It is no secret that a woman’s body is subject to critique. While clothing for men is just a tool to cover themselves as per the surrounding environment, clothing for women isa social and political narrative that dictates their life or as we affectionately call it ‘culturally appropriate’.

The clothing style could vary. It could be a woman covered head to toe in a Burqa, it could be a woman who decides to wear sports-wear in a park or it could be jeans and a top. Everything is critically evaluated by men and by women who work towards protecting the male gaze.

The male gaze is a heterosexual way of looking at female bodies that sexualises these bodies into an object. It is a gaze that runs on the self-affirmative notion that the bodies of women, and what they do with it, is directly linked to how they  appear in front of a man.

In a recent incident in Bangalore, India, popular Indian actress Samyuktha Hegde was abused and threatened by senior political leader of the congress party, Kavitha Reddy,  for wearing sports-wear, in Bangalore’s Agara Lake park. She was exercising with her friend.

Kavitha Reddy initially claimed she was in indecent attire and went onto morally police and then later abused the actress and her friend.  A supposedly progressive political leader gets uncomfortable by what women are wearing. It breaks into an argument and a fight where the politician is supported by five to six men. Later on, the police appear to be appeasing the politician instead of the women who were harassed. Although she did apologise, her apology came after her video went viral, and as a protection for her own political reputation.

To look at Samyuktha Hegde’s clothing as a threat is to view her clothing as an act of obscenity therefore bullying her identity and sense of agency and reducing her to sexual object, who, by putting her in public, apparently gives the men present a right to look at her? Nevermind that she was there to workout like everyone else, her actions were confused as to how men look at her. In the video posted by the actress, the politician is surrounded by men who are championing her on. The politician choses to side with the patriarchal figures in shaming these women. Asking to protect from the male gaze is a far stretch but punishing women for the male gaze is where we should draw a line.

What roles does Kavitha Reddy play? She is the guardian of the male gaze. We find her in our mothers, in our grandmothers, in aunties and sometimes our friends. She understands a woman’s body as an object that is there to be looked at by men. She gets angry at women for wearing certain kinds of clothing but she is not angry at men for looking. The agency in this case always belongs to men.

When Cixous asks women to re-define their identity, she urges us to strangle the moral police that comes alive in such instances. It is the moral police that shames women for wearing clothes that don’t flatter their bodies or clothes that do flatter them. She urges us to reflect upon the source of such vigilance. Do we shame other women because we believe in what we are saying or our identity is partially (or  wholly) shaped by the male gaze?

Whether we chose to wear a burqa, or a dress, or variations of the new type clothing produced everyday, the crux of the matter is that it should not worry anyone apart from the one wearing it. The identity of a woman, sexual or otherwise, has to be redefined to be separated from the men and their gaze. We have to draw a line otherwise people in power will continue to abuse their power and preserve patriarchy and male gaze.

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