When Barbie Became Muslim

When Barbie Became Muslim September 5, 2012

Growing up in Mexico City in the 90’s meant for me that I grew up in a completely different context from my parents. Since my parent’s generation did not have the luxury of foreign products, due to the economic restrictions on international goods, my parents grew up with yellow pencils made in Mexico and traditional ceramic and fabric dolls with braids and ribbons. Later, the economic shift towards neoliberal models and NAFTA brought along McDonald’s, Walmart and, of course, Barbie!

Mexican ribbon-dolls. Via Pinterest

By the time I was five, all I wanted was a Barbie. My parents, while disappointed, succumbed to TV advertising, peer pressure, and the crushing of the traditional doll artisan workshops in the country. One of the worse parts was that MATTEL did not bother “adapting” Barbie to her new home… American Barbie was sold in Mexico. She was blond (her “minority” friends were not introduced until much later), she wore mini-skirts in a country where women’s clothing was restricted in the most conservative states, and she had a boyfriend in a society that highly appreciated marriage and restricted women’s sexuality in a variety of ways. Yet by the time I was 10, I had many Barbie dolls and I used to get together with my friends to play and argue for who would have the privilege of playing the “blond Barbie.”

Many years later, after moving to Canada, I realized that the Barbie phenomenon was not only about Mexico being America’s unfortunate neighbour, but rather a global process of gendered colonization, or imperialism as some Latin Americans describe it, that continues to perpetuate particular cultural, racial and societal standards. Barbie has become the model that shapes the idea of dolls all over the world and that serves as cultural battle field across countries.

My first encounter with a counter-Barbie doll, aside from the fake Barbies sold in Mexico, was in my mosque.  One day one of my friend’s daughters brought along a black-haired Barbie doll that wore a black abaaya and a hijab.  She was not properly a “Barbie” doll; instead she was the popular Middle Easter version called Fulla. A couple of years ago, Safiyyah discussed Fulla on MMW, in a piece that focused on women’s body image and the doll market; yet, Fulla seems to still be many families’ first choice when it comes to toys for girls. In my mosque, some girls design their own Fulla outfits and among the most popular are niqabs, burqas and short skirts (under abaayas).

Fulla. Via The Muslim Times.

My friend and her husband viewed Fulla as a non-Western appropriate children’s doll. In an effort to avoid the Barbie-Mexico effect of adopting “foreign” values and accepting American endorsed ideas on gender, Fulla has been represented as Muslim women’s champion. And although Fulla is not well-known in Canada and other countries, many Muslim families, at least in my community, order Fulla from abroad to provide their daughters with a “better” role model than Barbie.

Fulla is said to be a “role model” not only because she dresses “appropriately,” but she also comes along with a prayer mat and women-appropriate careers such as Medicine or Education.

All in all, Fulla is said to be Barbie’s antithesis.   Her morals are highly appreciated because she reflects what a Muslim woman, as opposed to a non-Muslim, should be (modest, pious and family-oriented).  Fulla is meant to be so “perfect” that there has been a lot of discussion on what is the most appropriate way to represent her in a variety of settings (including in Saudi Arabia, where she has been sent to the back seat of the car.) Nonetheless, she is not everyone’s favorite. Some non-Muslims also have their own opinion on Fulla and the Muslim attitude towards Barbie, and it is often expressed in a way that perpetuates the “us” vs. the “other.”

Emel issue on Hijabi Barbie.  Via Ernie Khairina.

Yet, Fulla has a big problem… she is still a Barbie! Although not blond, Fulla is still whiter and seems to have the same bodily-incorrect measures that would prevent Barbie from walking. There are no African, Asian or East Asian Fullas, which continues to perpetuate a certain racial standard. She has not ventured into Engineering or a trip to the moon, and she dictates the rules of appropriateness and educates Muslim offspring.

Fulla is still a “playground” where others get to decide what little girls these days must learn and must become. Fulla does not counter the Barbie image, but rather adopts it. She is made to embody another stereotypical woman. It is not only about the body image, but also about the ideas that come along with a doll that is so well designed that it is said to counter American culture, to educate Muslim girls and to embody Muslim values.

Whereas Muslims count on Fulla to offer an alternative to what Barbie represents (which I still wonder if it is possible at all), Fulla and Barbie have become opponents in the same arena. Two female bodies representing particular ideas that are meant to be pass down to a younger generation of Muslim and non-Muslim girls. In some ways, and as my mom used to tell me, the days when dolls were meant to entertain boys and girls are gone. Today, dolls come along with their own ideological package and I fear for the next generation’s options when it comes to toys and role models.

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One response to “When Barbie Became Muslim”

  1. I still feel that Barbie is the best option as a doll. Whilst the body sculpt is unrealistic, the same is true for virtually every fashion doll on the market – Bratz and Monster High dolls for example, have deliberately extremely cartoonish proportions.

    In terms of racial diversity, Barbie [currently] beats all competition hands down. There’s an entire African American fashion line [“So In Style” dolls] with decent articulation. There’s also the Fashionista range, which includes brunette, black-haired, and AA characters, and again, has decent articulation. Both of these ranges are playline, meaning that they’re not excessively expensive, and are available in actual toy stores. If you were to include collector dolls, there’d be plenty of dolls to choose from.

    Now, I mentioned articulation, i.e. how posable or jointed the doll is. This aspect is the main reason why I believe this Fulla doll looks like a cheap, poor quality toy [the other is the very two-dimensional face-paint]. When I was a kid, I looked for two things in a doll: articulation, and brown hair. In the 90s, it was somewhat challenging to find both, nevertheless, I did manage to get “Workin’ Out Teresa”, “Happenin’ Hair Teresa” and “Hollywood Nails Teresa”. All three, in order of purchase, became my favourite doll, for two reasons: I’d always wanted dark hair [I’m naturally blonde], and because the posability meant that the dolls could do anything: go horse riding, fight off aliens, karate kick Action Man in the face, or simply something as simple as “pick up” something, or hug each other. This is very difficult to accomplish with a doll whose arms can’t bend at the elbows, or which has no ball joints at the shoulders or hips.

    Now, the articulated dolls during the 90s were typically sports dolls – gymnasts, skateboarders, rollerskaters, etc. I’ve never liked sports, but these were always the dolls I chose, because I didn’t give a crap about whatever “story” or “purpose” was described on the packet: I was merely looking for the potential to make up my own. THAT is what I believe kids want: versatility. Sure, they might get a doll because of a cool outfit, but probably because they want to play with that outfit/ acccessory: they want to make up their own story with it, not simply pose the doll and quote whatever trite line appears on the back of the packet: “I love to rollerskate with my friends!” Yeah, whatever.

    The main problem here is not that a company is cynically marketing to the eastern market by ostensibly disassociating its product from the western equivalent – the problem is that the product doesn’t match up. It is limiting, and children’s imagination is never something that should be stifled.

    I think it’s great to have a doll representative of cultural diversity, and not just in that disgusting shade of peroxide blonde the actual barbie character is so famous for. [I love barbie the brand – I dislike “barbie” the character.] There’s nothing too terrible about dressing the doll more modestly, either – there’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, with grown-up women dressing in revealing clothing, but I don’t think that children’s toys should be excessively sexualised [does an 8 year old really need a toy wearing a scrap of a miniskirt?]. I do dislike the implication that the Fulla doll’s inclusion of an abaaya/burkha/hijab etc could be used as propaganda to persuade young girls to wear such items, as I believe that although it is absolutely an individual’s prerogative to wear whatever clothing they desire [provided it poses no practical and/or situational risk to others] I also believe that the decision to adopt such traditions/ religious practises – or religion in general for that matter – should similarly be an individual’s prerogative, based upon balanced, impartial information, and free from social pressure.

    If that sounds like I’m criticising Islam specifically, please rest assured that is not my intent – I apply the same principals to any religion.

    I also somewhat resent the notion that Fulla is Barbie’s “antithesis” because actually, many of the projected values are very similar. Barbie might not come with a prayer mat or a hijab, but most of the advertising focuses on friends, careers, family or fashion… Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t “passion for fashion” mentioned somewhere in Fulla’s tagline? And the friends and family characters feature in her ads, and they’re planning to release doctor and teacher characters.

    Barbie currently comes with a variety of friends:
    Teresa, [brunette]
    Christie, [AA]
    Raquelle, [black hair, possibly oriental]
    Midge, [redhead]
    Summer, [honey/strawberry blonde]
    Ken, [dark blonde/ light brown hair]
    Ryan [dark brown hair]

    She also comes in playsets with her little sisters, Skipper and Shelly/ Chelsea [they’ve changed the latter character’s name]. You can buy family camping playsets, bike-riding playsets, and probably a bunch more that I haven’t seen.

    There have been many, many versions of “teacher barbie” or “doctor barbie”. I remember having Dentist Barbie as a kid. There is a range of “Barbie Careers” currently out [named “I can be…”] which includes President Barbie, Paediatrician Barbie, so that’s a doctor one right there, Rock Star Barbie, Reporter Barbie, Art Teacher Barbie, Architect Barbie, Pilot Barbie, Tennis Champion Barbie, Computer Engineer Barbie, Palaeontologist Barbie, Racecar Driver Barbie, Vet Barbie, Magician Barbie, Actress, Nurse, Snowboarder, Pizza Chef, Zookeeper, and Photographer Barbies, and more that I can’t be bothered to list. Now, all of those sound like pretty damn awesome jobs to me [except for nursing – very, very hard work!] and ones which no self-respecting parents would try to prevent their kids from doing. I should also point out that all of those are dolls which are currently, or very recently, on the market: I literally just found them all on Amazon.

    Now, I appreciate that Barbie is also available as a cheerleader, or a babysitter, and yeah, you might not want your kid to have those jobs as an aspiration, because they’re pretty pathetic, but still – given the vast variety of other options available, I think if you’re looking for a role model [which your kid will probably just disregard anyway] getting a Barbie is a better bet.

    If you want a great toy, then Barbie is probably the best option although Monster High dolls are pretty cool. Kind of spindly though, so more for adult collectors than kids.

    So In Style range: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8375/8475061756_2c2ff28c73_z.jpg

    Barbie Life In The Dreamhouse range:

    Barbie Fashionistas range:

    Barbie “I Can Be President” range: