Iraqi Kurdish soldiers prepare to fight Isis militants 20km south of Kirkuk, 23 June. Photo: Getty
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In the Kurds’ make-do capital, Erbil, the message is clear: Iraq needs a three-state solution

Accompanied by a small army of peshmerga, I went as close as I dared to the front line, an army base in Kirkuk that the Iraqis had abandoned without putting up much of a fight.

It has been 23 years since I first visited Iraqi Kurdistan and despite the capture of swaths of territory by Islamic extremists further south, I am delighted to be back. In the words of T S Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, “In the mountains, there you feel free.” Kurdistan is defended by peshmerga fighters fiercely loyal to the idea of a Kurdish state, and I feel reasonably safe here. But so much has changed since the oilmen moved in. At Erbil International Airport you can pay $130 for “fast-track” passport processing and luggage collection. All this amounts to is being served a cup of Earl Grey tea in a comfy chair while somebody else takes your bags off the carousel. Erbil, the Kurds’ make-do capital, is now ringed by flashy skyscrapers, obscuring the view of the ancient citadel. My swanky hotel has lavatories in “dictator chic” black marble, with a presidential suite advertised in the lobby at a mere $15,000 per night.

 

Bell and Baghdad

When I visited in the 1990s, Kurdistan was still recovering from Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks. The doctrine of western military intervention for humanitarian purposes was newborn and unsullied by the wars of the next decade. British and American troops protected a Kurdish “safe haven” from the Iraqi dictator’s helicopter gunships at the end of the first Gulf war. I drove across the country in a jeep with the late Christopher Hitchens, who at the time was reading novels by the Bloomsbury Set, possibly the only person to do so in Iraq since Gertrude Bell herself. It was Bell who helped map this British creation of a country, and even though those lines she drew in the sand appear to be blurring, she did come up with the useful phrase, “No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.”

 

Power vacuum

The Kurds do know what they want and always have done, Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraq’s president, tells me. “The Iraq we knew that is unitary, centralised, governed by the centre, is over,” he says flatly when we meet in his fortified government office. Not that Tony Blair is at fault here. “Removing Saddam has no bearing on the crisis,” he says, blaming Iraq’s politicians for failing to make the most of the opportunity the 2003 invasion gave them. Iraq’s Kurds seem to be waiting for the country to fail so that they can say, “There, I told you so.” Qubad’s father, Jalal, a jovial bear of a man, is no longer in Baghdad banging sectarian heads together but receiving medical treatment in Germany. I ask Qubad if Iraq will still exist when his father comes home. “That’s a tough question to answer,” he says.

 

Better not together

The peshmerga commander Jafar Mustafa is a fiery, moustachioed general and does not beat about the bush stating what should happen next. He says he’s lost 20 men fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) along Kurdistan’s borders and that because the Iraqi army’s 12th Division has deserted, the Kurds have no choice but to look after themselves: “If you want to create a peaceful Iraq, you have to divide these three nations into three countries. It is the only solution.” I reflect that Britain is busy running a “Better Together” campaign – and that the nation Gertrude Bell helped dream up for Iraq has been in trouble for decades, never more so than now.

 

Urban guerrilla warfare

I hear the same talk of partition from a Sunni fleeing from Tikrit. I find Nawfal Moussa and his family sheltering in a school classroom, having driven north to Kirkuk in the Kurdish-controlled zone. The message Isis gave him before he left was that the militants would unseat an unjust government and would not hurt him, but he wasn’t taking the risk. A fear of government air strikes seemed to weigh as heavily on him as the threat of jihadi execution.

Even the ousted governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi, admitted that Isis had been broadly welcomed in Sunni areas of Mosul because Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government is so hated. Should America bomb Isis, I asked? Their camps in the desert, yes, but if the extremists become an urban guerrilla force, then certainly not.

 

Lessons of the Humvee

Accompanied by a small army of peshmerga, I went as close as I dared to the front line, an army base in Kirkuk that the Iraqis had abandoned without putting up much of a fight. The dormitories had been left in such a hurry that they were full of clothing, with berets and khaki flung to the ground. Still parked inside were scores of US military vehicles, many of them burned in the hope of preventing Isis from using them. One in particular, a charred Humvee, seemed to symbolise America’s thwarted ambition here. Twenty-five billion dollars spent building an army – and it comes to this.

Jonathan Rugman is the foreign affairs correspondent of Channel 4 News

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Bennett Raglin / Getty
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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