Over the past two years, Barbie has pretty much disappeared from the shelves of Middle Eastern toy stores, her permasmiling presence replaced by Fulla. The product of Syria-based NewBoy (and first released in November 2003), Fulla, like her flaxen-haired American counterpart, is loving and compassionate-but unlike her is modestly dressed in a black abaya, or overdress, and a head scarf. In frequently aired commercials, Fulla prays before sunrise, bakes a cake, and reads at bedside, interests that Fulla's brand manager, Fawaz Abidin, told the New York Times are 'designed to convey Fulla's values.'
Despite the fact that the doll, which sells for $16 in regions where the average monthly income is $100, is inaccessible to most Muslim girls, Fulla and her pink prayer rug appeal to the scores of conservative Muslim parents who would never buy their daughter a Barbie. But as she flies off the shelves-accompanied by a bonanza of branded products like Fulla breakfast cereal, chewing gum, backpacks, bicycles, even a matching prayer rug and scarf set-Fulla remains a subject of controversy.
While the dialectics of fashion take a back seat to political and economic realities for the majority of women in the Middle East, in Syrian and international media the veil continues to dominate popular discourse about Arab women. Fulla functions as a symbol of the cultural and political climate in the Middle East: Is she a good role model for Muslim girls, an image that celebrates their lives and offers a departure from the increasingly globalized white, blond ideal? Or, as Syrian women's rights advocate Maan Abdul Salam proposed in the Times in September 2005, is Fulla a residual effect of the recent upsurge of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East?
By Salam's lights, Fulla comes at a time of cultural shifts for Syria, as the historically secular country reconnects with religious values. Although the idea is that Muslim girls need positive, culturally appropriate role models to emulate, the assumed comfort of a doll 'just like me' is complicated by the social pressure on women in the Middle East to conform to a doctrine of purity and religiosity. Could it be that, for Muslim girls, Barbie is more benign than Fulla? In her parent-approved plastic piety, Fulla may have a lot more in common with Barbie than first appears: She's a plaything, yes, but she's also an emblem of the cultural pressure to conform to one extremely limiting female role.
Katie Cercone lives in Portland, Oregon, where she studies gender and art. Reprinted from Bitch (Winter 2006). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (4 issues) from 1611 Telegraph Ave., Suite 515, Oakland, CA 94612; www.bitchmagazine.com.