Drastic Plastic: emel Focuses on Women and Body Image

The Fulla doll.

The Fulla doll.

Very seldom does Muslim media produce quality critical analysis of issues facing Muslim women. But emel magazine published a series of articles doing just that to tie in with International Women’s Day, They are, thankfully, not the run-of-the-mill articles about “why hijab” or “how to be the perfect (insert womanly role here)” that a lot of Muslim media is awash with these days.

This issue of emel focuses on body image, and in the introduction, Sarah Joseph, a revert to Islam, discusses her upbringing in the fashion world, and why she fled from it. However, she notes that Muslim women are not immune to the demands and societal pressures surrounding perceptions of the ideal body, citing increased rates of anorexia among Muslim women. She introduces the e-zine with the following pertinent questions:

Can we lay all of this at the door of the Western world? What role do cultures play in the insecurities of women with the demand for tall, thin, fair brides? How do we help our children, particularly our daughters, to feel confident about their own body images? How can we help them resist the global search for body perfection? How can we stop Muslim women turning into little more than Hijabi Barbies?

While the last question seems to be a projection of her own bad experiences in the fashion industry, they all raise important issues. It was particularly refreshing that she did not place the blame solely on the “Western world.”

The first article, entitled “All Dolled Up,” explores the ways in which Barbie, Bratz dolls, and other toy brands contribute to unrealistic expectations for women to meet, with sometimes fatal consequences. I was impressed to see this issue discussed so scientifically and well researched, and glad to know that emel is picking up on stories that are not overtly religious but affect women.

The second article, “This Little Dolly Went To Market,” discusses the rise in popularity of  “Muslim dolls” and how this can contribute to a more realistic and even positive message to young girls. I agree that dolls that are ethnically and religiously diverse can help young children understand pluralism and become more sensitive, but at the same time, some of these dolls only serve to reinforce cultural perceptions and gender roles. (Muslimah Media Watch has previously covered the topic of Muslim dolls in the media here and here.) Joseph does point out that the Arab features of Fulla are not really representative of the majority of the worlds Muslims, who are not Arab, but she maintains that it is her image—that of a women committed to education, kindness and fighting injustice—that makes her a winner.

The third article, “Paying Through the Nose,” looks into the increasing proportions of Iranians, especially Iranian women, who are undergoing nose surgery. I like that this article expresses the views of women are both from religious and non-religious backgrounds. Again, this does not make “the West” a scapegoat, but looks at various factors–including culture, religion and social status–as reasons for this increased trait. Plastic surgery among women is on the rise across the Middle East, with  celebrities and notables like Sheikha Mozah having gone under the knife. Whether these women have been influenced by Western culture, or by religion (as one interviewee validly points out in the article – that she decided to undergo plastic surgery because “God is beautiful and loves beauty”) the point is, that as women in the Middle East are gaining more and more autonomy over their bodies, questions of the right body image and what constitutes beauty are bound to arise.

As long as we let the women themselves decide and speak, as emel has, things are going in the right direction.

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