She has enchanted little girls for decades around the globe, but Barbie, the world’s bestselling doll, is being elbowed off the toy shelves in the Arab world by an Islamic playmate called Fulla.
In this “battle of the Barbies”, dark-eyed Fulla shares roughly the same physique as her western counterpart — her breasts, says one reviewer, are “modestly smaller” — but she is covered in a black abaya, or robe, and a matching black headscarf.
She has her own prayer mat — in pink felt — and in the words of NewBoy Design Studio, her Syrian-based creators, espouses “Muslim values” that will probably conspire against her following Barbie’s footsteps into space exploration, politics or the Olympics.
Her manufacturers have expressed an interest in marketing her in France, where the dolls are already changing hands over the internet among the country’s large Muslim community.
However, this has prompted fears of a fundamentalist plot to propagate the wearing of the veil in a country that has banned it from schools.
“This doll is an Islamist strategy,” said Catherine Costa- Lascaut, a sociologist who belongs to a committee that championed opposition to the veil in the classroom.
“It is a very clever one. They (the manufacturer) will try to generate a craze and it will be difficult to stop. The doll has one main advantage which is that it touches children. They reach right into the home.”
Albert Samuel, a historian, was deeply concerned about the arrival of “prayer-mat Barbie”. Referring to the riots that erupted recently in predominantly Muslim districts on the periphery of several big French cities, he said: “It is a dangerous game just when things are calming down.
“If children do not resemble each other, at least in their games, if their games separate them, Barbie doll against Muslim doll, society will be divided because the unity of the nation starts with the unity of its children.”
Fulla is not the first veiled doll to appear on the market and Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, once produced a “Moroccan Barbie” as well as a doll called Leila who was meant to be a Muslim slave girl in an Ottoman court. Iran has a veiled doll called Sara; and Razanne, made by a Michigan company, is popular among Muslims in Britain and America.
None, however, can compete with Fulla, who first appeared in 2003. Since then Barbie, who was launched in 1959, has all but disappeared from toy shops in the Middle East. In Egypt, Jordan and Qatar the craze for her Islamic counterpart has extended to Fulla breakfast cereal, chewing gum and even bicycles.
Advertising on Arab satellite television channels shows Fulla saying her prayers at sunrise, baking a cake for Yasmeen, her friend, or reading a book at bedtime. “When you take Fulla out of the house, don’t forget her new spring abaya,” says one of the advertisements, referring to a lighter weight black robe. Fulla’s tiny prayer mat is also available in a larger size for the doll’s owner.
A spokesman for the manufacturer attributed Fulla’s success to a character that appeals to parents: “She’s honest, loving and caring and she respects her father and mother.”
She will never have a boyfriend like Barbie’s Ken, or the Australian surfer called Blaine who is one of Barbie’s more recent playmates, but a Doctor Fulla and a Teacher Fulla are expected soon. “These are two respected careers for women that we would like to encourage small girls to follow,” said the spokesman.
Beyond symbolising the ideal Muslim woman, Fulla also reflects a growing trend towards the commercialisation of Islam by entrepreneurs who have realised the gains to be made in selling Islamic values.
Barbie will no doubt keep her market in France but she was always at a bit of a disadvantage in the Arab world. Declaring that her provocative clothing was offensive to Islam, Saudia Arabia’s religious police had branded her as a “Jewish” toy and a “symbol of decadence”.
The banning of the doll ensured the creation of a thriving Barbie black market in Saudi Arabia — at least until the more modest Fulla appeared on the scene.
“We’re very happy,” said a spokesman for the producers. “We are looking forward to going global.”
Jan. 22, 2006
Matthew Campbell, Paris