A shed of one's own

We need to be more open about issues facing men.

We need to talk about men and we don’t do so. Quite often, because of the cultures of both modern men and women, it’s because we can’t.

Even to suggest that there are issues among men that might need talking through is a minor heresy: being a white male is like playing a computer game on “easy mode” – men are the patriarchy. Not only do we sail easily into the elite, with great jobs and pay, we’re also responsible for a huge number of problems faced by other groups.

For some men, all of the above is true. Looking at the very top of society, you could imagine it was the case for huge numbers. But it's not the case for everyone: millions of men are losing out and their situation is getting steadily worse each year. And all too often, it’s happening below the radar.

Despite the focus on the real and severe impact of the UK’s austerity measures on women, men were more likely to be unemployed before the downturn and still are.

Men are more likely than women to be the victims of violence and far more likely to be in jail. Year after year, boys’ school attainment falls behind that of girls, as does their chances of getting into university.

It goes further. There is still a pay gap between the genders for those under 30 – but men are lagging behind women. Given what’s happening in education, this could sustain and even worsen in the coming decades.

Are these problems the fault of women, or feminism? Of course not. Do they mean that it’s time for women (and men) to stop fighting for social justice, access to abortions, an end to domestic and sexual violence and more? No.

But why should the problems of one group only be addressed and discussed if they are caused by another? We certainly don’t do so for race: black-on-black violence is recognised as the genuine social problem it is and efforts are made to tackle it. Similarly, few suggest that the staggering level of black youth unemployment – in excess of 50 per cent for men – is simply down to racism. It’s far more complex than that.

So it is with many of the challenges facing modern feminists and the problems faced by many men. The pay gap for women over 30 is now far more about access to childcare – an issue that surely could unite men and women – and choice of profession and primary care-giver, rather than outright prejudice.

Right now, too much of the conversation around what’s going on with men is left to people who’d either prefer to go back to 1950 or who think feminism’s battles are won.

But if we will take the time to acknowledge complex issues for women, why not for men? The game need not be zero-sum: things that benefit men need not come at the cost of women, nor vice versa.

Our uneasiness about bloke talk has wider problems. Take cancer as an example. Breast cancer killed 11,556 UK women in 2009, while prostate cancer killed nearly as many men (10,382). But despite their broadly similar mortality rates, breast cancer receives nearly three times as much site-specific research funding as prostate cancer.

The reason for this is a positive one: the "sisterhood" is a positive image and one used to fundraise aggressively for an excellent cause. Women’s-only fundraisers and races are increasingly common – not just for cancer but for other causes.

Being a strong and successful woman might still be loaded with a huge amount of baggage around appearance and more that men don’t have to face but it’s almost unquestionably a positive image.

Seeing a group of strong men as part of a "brotherhood" is not nearly such a positive image, reeking of conspiracy and cabal. Any club or society that only admits men is (possibly rightly) pilloried.

Success as a man is for many of us loaded with the guilt that comes from having it easy – and talk about male culture too quickly slides into chauvinism.

It’s a confusing welter of mixed signals that leads to no decent sense of male culture and male identity – something that is surely a contributing factor to the problems set out above.

The “battle of the sexes” is a cliché with a lot to answer for. It’s a fake battle that we should all be tired of fighting. Surely allowing for room to think about and discuss men, masculinity and what’s going wrong with it is legitimate. If it led to creative thinking or solutions to violence, imprisonment or low attainment, men would certainly not be the only beneficiaries.

Give men a bit of space to think, to discuss, to write – a shed of one’s own, as it were – and we might all come out better off.

James Ball is a journalist for the Guardian

Sisterhood: this "pink Zumbathon party" was held to raise money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. London, October 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

James Ball is a journalist at the Guardian

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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics