Fulla Flap

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.

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