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.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-28727-Woodside-Family-Examiner RCHOUDH

    Thanks for this I’ll be sure to check out those articles! I think both internal societal pressures and Western cultural influence have shaped how modern day Muslim women view their bodies, some more than others. But I think even internal societal pressures have been influenced by the West. Those Lebanese pop stars look and dress alot like Western ones. And Bollywood actresses are increasingly looking more Western than ever before in their looks, dress and behavior. So while it may be true that Muslims don’t always directly idolize Hollywood notions of blond blue-eyed beauty, we can’t say we’re completely free from Western standards of beauty in our own societies.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-28727-Woodside-Family-Examiner RCHOUDH

    I also wanted to mention that I’m ambivalent about Fulla. Like I haven’t gone out and bought my daughter a Fulla doll outright because I don’t want her to become fashion and beauty conscious from such a young age. On the other hand when we’re in the shop and she sees a Fulla coloring book I buy it for her (as well as other accessories sometimes like Fulla school supplies, backpacks, etc). Like I can tolerate her liking Fulla up to a certain extent. It’s nice that instead of the unobtainable blond blue eyed beauty standard espoused by Barbie, she can look at Fulla and find more realistic standards of beauty for herself.

  • umm musa

    I find that these issues are being increasingly picked up my Muslimahs writing in both the media and on blogs. Kareema Hamdan has written a number of articles exploring the consequences of over-sexualisation of the media on children as well as a couple of good critical analyses of feminism.
    InshAllah this will cause parents of daughters to think again before just going ahead and buying the next Bratz or barbie doll just because that is what ‘everyone else at school has’.

  • http://www.safiyyahsblog.blogspot.com Safiyyah

    @RCHOUDH – i agree with you, Western culture has its fare share of influence on the way women think about body image – i just want readers to bear in mind though, that it alone is not the sole reason for these perceptions – and also that there are naturally alot of muslim women who are western – either born and brought up in the west, or reverts – to say they are “influenced by western culture” is like saying “indians are influenced by indian culture” or “iranians by persian culture” – rhetorical.

  • ayeshter

    I think, ever since the rise of the internet, the lines between local culture and western influance are bluring very quickly. There is no questen that the modern beauty stadards desenating throght out the world (just look at the rise in eye lid surgeryes and the very White looking Bollywood and Arabic pop stars). But these standards are being re-apporpriated non-western cultures and subject to there values. I think alot of places have placed a primum of female beauty the world over, but now the consept of female beauty is changing. Since the western world is not known for it’s realistic veiws on this matter, I don’t think it’s a change for the better.

    Fatema Mernassi called size 6 the Western womens harem. Sadly, our harem is spreading.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-28727-Woodside-Family-Examiner RCHOUDH

    @ Umm Musa
    Thank you for those links. I’ll be sure to check them out. I agree that dolls for girls nowadays are highly problematic which is why I have avoided buying any of them all this time.

    @ Safiyyah

    You’re right I didn’t realize until later that I was only talking about Middle Eastern/South Asian Muslims before. I forgot to mention about Western Muslims and the direct influence they face.