Afghanistan is going down, down, down

Deaths up. McChrystal out. No end in sight.

Afghanistan continues to morph into "Chaosistan". The Ministry of Defence confirms that another four soldiers were killed in Helmand in a road accident on Wednesday evening, taking the British military death toll since 2001 to 307.

Meanwhile, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's special envoy to Afghanistan, "known for his scepticism about the western war effort and his support for peace talks with the Taliban", has stepped down from his post and gone on "extended leave", only a month before a critical international conference in Kabul.

And the Americans, even before their commander-in-chief sacked their top commander on the ground, ain't doing so well, either. As Sahil Kapur writes over at Comment Is Free:

This month, Afghanistan became America's longest-ever war, and the US death toll crossed 1,000. June is also set to be the deadliest month for Nato forces since the war began in 2001. Last year was its deadliest, and this year is on pace to set a new record. President Hamid Karzai's top advisers say he's lost faith in the coalition and even his own government to turn things around. His perceived illegitimacy after last autumn's disputed election diminishes his clout.

Far from quelling the bleeding, the situation has further deteriorated since the Obama administration's troop surge this year. The recent offensive to oust the Taliban from the stronghold of Marjah was a disaster -- McChrystal himself called it a "bleeding ulcer". Critical operations in Kandahar have been postponed. And in case all this isn't bad enough, Afghan private contractors are using US taxpayer money to bribe Taliban militants to fuel the violence, the New York Times reports.

So forgive me if I don't get all teary and misty-eyed over the enforced departure of General Stanley "Badass" McChrystal. As the US media critic and anti-war activist Norman Solomon notes: "When the wheels are coming off, it doesn't do much good to change the driver." He adds: "The latest events reflect unwritten rules for top military commanders: Escalating a terrible war is fine. Just don't say anything mean about your boss."

The furore over Team McChrystal's rather ill-advised, if not plain stupid, remarks to Rolling Stone magazine about Vice-President Joe Biden ("Who's that?"), the national security adviser, James Jones (a "clown"), and President Obama himself ("uncomfortable and intimidated") has distracted the press and public from an important revelation in the piece itself.

Team McChrystal -- or "Team America", as they call themselves -- don't think the war is going too well.

A senior adviser is quoted as saying the war is going worse than the politicians and the public realise:

If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.

And Major General Bill Mayville, McChrystal's chief of operations, tells Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings:

It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win . . . This is going to end in an argument.

Great news. Tell that to the parents and partners of the four British soldiers who died yesterday evening. Or to the thousands of Afghan civilians killed in Nato-led air strikes, bombings and shootings at checkpoints. ("We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force," admitted McChrystal in March.) They all died for "an argument".

The Runaway General may indeed be gone. But this pointless, runaway war is still going.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones