The Burqa Barbie Brouhaha

A recent decision to auction a “Burqa Barbie” for a Save the Children fundraising campaign (“to educate children in conflict areas around the world”) has been making its rounds online this past week.  Of the 500 different Barbies designed by Eliana Lorena, it was only natural for the culturally inappropriate (Islamic!) “Burqa Barbie” to be singled out as a cause for uproar.  (I was interested in seeing what the other 499 Barbies looked like, as I find cultural dress from around the world fascinating to look at, but seem unable to find any site that describes the other Barbies…)

An image of the "Burqa Barbies". Image via Caters.

An image of the "Burqa Barbies". Image via Caters.

Lorena proclaims in The Daily Mail (the source unfortunately seems to have first exposed the existence of Burqa Barbie): “I know Barbie was something seen as bad before as an image for girls, but in actual fact the message with Barbie for women is you can be whatever you want to be.”  I have a hard time coming to terms with girls identifying with any type of Barbie as someone they might aspire to, due to the fact that it promotes a self-image that is unrealistic and unhelpful towards contributing to girls’ self-esteem.  For girls, however, who are inclined to identify with Barbies, I think that having a culturally-appropriate Barbie can be self-affirming (I, for instance, still have my Indian Barbie boxed for safekeeping, whose braid, fascinatingly, is thicker than the width of her arm…).

Sara Elghobashy of elan notes the inflated outrage over Burqa Barbie:

Outrage over Burqa Barbie would be justified if she came with a Taliban Tarek complete with a bag of stones that are ready to be used if Burqa Barbie falls in love with Malibu Ken, but that’s not the case. The doll was meant to represent Afghani culture and was never intended to be political, though many are interpreting Lorena’s decision to outfit Barbie in a burqa as just that.

Everyone from NOW to Fox News has been foaming at the mouth with rage over the doll, and every concern, ranging from fake feminist concerns to terrorism issues, has been played out.

Over at vs. the Pomegrante, Joseph Shahadi writes an excellent critique of the negative portrayal of Burqa Barbie.  Shahadi concludes:

The entire spectrum of western politics is invested in the silence of Muslimahs…whose common concern, the overriding threat of super-violent, oppressive maleness emanating from the East, unites them. So in the end, this conflict over Barbie dolls is not about Arab and Islamic women at all….Rather, this–like almost everything else– is really about the threatening specters of Arab and Islamic boogeymen, who must be conquered, controlled and/or destroyed to preserve “our” way of life.

While I agree with Shahadi’s conclusion that “oppressive maleness” and “threatening specter of Arab and Islamic boogeymen” underlies the overwhelming ill sentiment towards Burqa Barbie, I disagreed with his dismissal of the conflict to be “not about Arab and Islamic women at all”. By continuing to focus on Muslim women’s dress as a form of oppression, Muslimahs continue to be judged on their faith according to their dress in a way that men never will be–by both those who are of the faith and those who are not, and hence does in fact make it all about Muslim women.

I find myself wondering, why is this news?  Burqa Barbie, in the end, merely represents a form of cultural dress (albeit tinged with a contentious political history and a little misrepresented in lime green and radioactive orange), a one-time design to be auctioned for charity.  Not every Muslim woman will necessarily identify with her culturally, but that does not necessarily mean that her existence as a form of cultural expression is wrong and degrading to women.

Barbie herself symbolizes an unrealistic portrayal of women, and some of her other forms of cultural clothing should also be seen as degrading and oppressive.  Instead of singling out a single form of cultural dress that is “oppressive” and “degrading” towards women, we should look at the myriad of clothing styles that contribute to degrading portrayals of women (even those in Western cultures) so that girls everywhere can identify with culturally-relevant forms of dress that can be seen as liberating.

Friday Links | December 26, 2014
A Potential Burqa Ban at the Federal Level in Switzerland
Happy New Year! + Taking a Break
  • Sumayah Hassan

    I agree with Joseph and Sara this is just an attempt to blow things out of proportion and avoid any steps that would lead to Hijab or Islamic images becoming mainstream or acceptable in greater society.

  • salma

    I also agree and disagree with Shahadi’s take on the matter, but he does come close. When I first saw the story yesterday inn the newspaper, I was in denial, I mean where does Islam and Barbie and burqas even intersect?

    To answer your question about why this is news, I think it’s because Barbie is symbol of sex and beauty. If little girls start seeing Barbie in a burqa or fully clothed, well what happens to the status quo? What happened to female liberation…?

    Just my take.

  • Rochelle

    Two comments:

    First, I think there’s a misconception when we look at the media portrayal of Muslim women that women’s dress and the oppression of “beauty standards” are ignored in the western feminist discourse. In other words, that western feminists are fine with the standard Barbie, when they’re not. So when you say “Instead of singling out a single form of cultural dress…” I think you are ignoring the piles of literature out there by western feminists that critique western styles of clothing. Just because Fox news does not cover these debates, (as we know) does not mean they don’t exist.

    I’ll quote Gloria Steinam here: “For women… bras, panties, bathing suits, and other stereotypical gear are visual reminders of a commercial, idealized feminine image that our real and diverse female bodies can’t possibly fit. Without these visual references, each individual woman’s body demands to be accepted on its own terms. We stop being comparatives. We begin to be unique.”

    Second, here’s the problem I have with the burqa barbie, and all representations of “cultural dress”: Afghan women wear tons of different things. Perhaps they were forced (and yes, many of them were FORCED) to wear the burqa outside, but inside a myriad of styles were worn. So when you portray an Afghan women in a burqa and call it her “cultural dress” you are not only ignoring all other aspects of her culture but you are legitimizing the Taliban’s interpretation of her culture as opposed to her own articulation. It reduces her “culture” to her Burqa, which by the way I think was a big reason why the Burqa was coerced in the first place — to force a “culture” upon the society such that all other forms of dress were deemed as culturally “inauthentic” or “illegitimate.”

    Why not have an Afghan woman in a headscarf? Why not a pantsuit? Why not a swimsuit? Afghan women wear all these things. Picking the Burqa and calling it “cultural dress” is nonsense. Call it what it was: “What Afghan women had to wear outside lest they risk violence.”

  • TheWholeTruth

    The best barbie yet! Wish I had this when I was young :D

  • Salma

    I totally agree with Rochelle…you said it beautifully and with much knowledge…

  • Raaz

    Excellent points Rochelle–I agree that Western feminists do look at “beauty standards” and critique western styles of clothing. However, when portrayals of Muslim women are discussed by the media, there is an overwhelming focus on Muslimahs’ dress and a lack of intelligent dialogue about western dress (or any other form of “oppressive” dress for that matter).

    As for deeming the burqa a form of “cultural dress,” you are right to mention that “the Burqa was coerced in the first place” and is a form of “forced culture.” But then, I wonder, what exactly does “cultural dress” mean? Does it represent a “national” dress, or a dress worn by the “majority” of its residents? There will always be those who do not wear certain forms of “cultural dress” and those who are forced to wear something against their will. How do we categorize “cultural” clothing? For whom will the term apply?

  • E S

    For goodness’ sake. Fulla has been making dolls in abayas for years and even they vowed they would never make a niqab or full burka.

    What is fascinating about Burqa Barbie is firstly that they think that an Arab garment should represent Afghan culture. It just shows the ignorance of some Westerners who think that you can lump all predominantly Islamic cultures under one tent and assume they’re all the same, the irony being, this is EXACTLY what the hardcore extremists are trying to do, and some Westerners have bought it hook, line and sinker. Secondly, it conflates probably the two most unattainable and damaging feminine ideals out there – the totally submissive woman, characterized by her faith and purity (burka), or by her beauty and availability (Barbie). In both cases it elevates what a woman does with her body, her exterior, over what she has in her mind, heart and soul, and what good deeds she performs. So in that sense, it is only natural that the two images should come together.

  • ayeshter

    I agree with E.S. compleatly, it’s a barbie for Gods sake! why is everyone obessing so much over the Burka? Whats under it? If the body porportions are the same (which in all likely hood they are), isn’t that within it’s self a more powerfull form of cultural empirialism? That even with the Burka, whats underneath is expected to follow the very unrealisatic and very unheathy body standards which western hyper-comsumerism esposes.

    I just don’t agree with trying to defend somthing thats so inherently sexist to begin with. How about creating a Burka clad (which as ES and Rochelle pointed out is questenable to begin with) doll with a body that exibits the Islamic idea of being happy with the natural bodies God has so graciously given us.

  • Joseph Shahadi

    Wow, I didn’t realize you’d referenced my essay here until I noticed the link just now. Since you have mentioned me directly I thought I’d clarify my conclusion and–perhaps–answer your concern.

    You quoted the end of my essay but the context for my point about Muslimahs is found a few paragraphs earlier when I write, ” As far as I’m concerned, the fact that all of this “outrage” and “concern” for Muslim and Arab women doesn’t ever translate into a large-scale western platform for their voices tells the tale.” So when I write that the “Burqa Barbie” flap is not about Muslimahs “after all” what I mean is that since none of the endless discussion about the “plight” of women in Islam ever amounts to increased self-representation for Muslimahs in the West I am suspicious of the motive for this concern. Of course you are right when you write that women are judged in a way that men never will be. But if (largely white) mainstream feminists (or conservatives for that matter) really cared about flesh and blood Muslimahs they’d actually listen to you. Since they don’t–and their entire mission to “save” you depends on a constructed image of your silent helplessness–I argue that they are only concerned with that image and not actual Muslimahs. A pose of feminist concern for Arab and Islamic women is an old Western strategy to justify colonial violence so I think there is historical precedent for this notion.

    You may not agree but I hope I’ve made my argument more clear.


  • Raaz

    Joe, you bring up excellent points–thank you for clarifying your position. Most importantly, how can we change mainstream feminists’ (and, in general, even the non-feminists) “constructed issue of…silent helplessness”? How do we break the silence that is forced upon Muslim women? Forums like MMW are only the start–engaging Muslimahs everywhere to take a stance on a “constructed image” should be the ultimate goal…