DAMASCUS – In the past year or so, Barbie dolls have all but disappeared from the shelves of many toy stores in the Middle East. In their place is Fulla, a dark-eyed doll with, as her creator puts it, “Muslim values.”
Fulla roughly shares Barbie’s size and proportions, but steps out of her shiny pink box wearing a black abaya and a matching head scarf.
She is named after a type of jasmine that grows in the Levant, and although she has an extensive and beautiful wardrobe (sold separately, of course), Fulla is usually displayed wearing her modest “outdoor fashion.”
Fulla’s creator, NewBoy Design Studio, which is based in Syria, introduced her in November 2003, and she has quickly become a best-seller all over the region. It is nearly impossible to walk into a corner shop in Syria or Egypt or Jordan or Qatar without encountering Fulla breakfast cereal or Fulla chewing gum, or to step into the street without finding little girls pedaling their Fulla bicycles, all in trademark “Fulla pink.”
Young girls in the Mideast are obsessed with Fulla, and conservative parents who would not dream of buying Barbies for their daughters seem happy to shell out for a modest doll who has her own tiny prayer rug, rendered in pink felt.
Children who want to dress like their dolls can buy matching, girl-sized prayer rug and cotton scarf sets, all in pink.
Fulla is not the first doll to wear the hijab, a traditional Islamic head covering worn outside the house so a woman’s hair and the shape of her body cannot be seen by men outside her family. Mattel markets a group of collectors’ dolls that includes a Moroccan Barbie and a doll called Leila, designed to represent a Muslim slave girl in an Ottoman court.
In Iran, toy shops sell a veiled doll called Sara. A Michigan-based company markets a veiled doll called Razanne, selling primarily to Muslim communities in the United States and Britain.
But none of those have enjoyed anything approaching Fulla’s popularity.
Fawaz Abidin, the Fulla brand manager for NewBoy, said that was because NewBoy understood the Arab market in a way that its competitors had not.
“This isn’t just about putting the hijab on a Barbie doll,” Abidin said. “You have to create a character that parents and children will want to relate to. Our advertising is full of positive messages about Fulla’s character. She’s honest, loving and caring, and she respects her father and mother.”
Though Fulla will never have a boyfriend doll like Barbie’s Ken, Abidin said, a Dr. Fulla and Fulla as a teacher will be introduced soon. “These are two respected careers for women that we would like to encourage small girls to follow,” he said.
On the children’s satellite channels popular in the Arab world, Fulla advertising is incessant.
In a series of animated commercials, a sweetly high-pitched voice sings the Fulla song in Arabic (“She will soon be by my side, and I can tell her my deepest secrets”) as a cartoon Fulla glides across the screen, saying her prayers as the sun rises, baking a cake to surprise her friend Yasmeen, or reading a book at bedtime – scenes which, according to Abidin, are “designed to convey Fulla’s values.”
A series of filmed commercials seems more familiarly sales-oriented, starring a gaggle of energetic young Syrian actresses who present Fulla silverware, Fulla stationery, Fulla luggage and, of course, new accessories for Fulla herself. “When you take Fulla out of the house, don’t forget her new spring abaya!” admonishes one commercial introducing a new line of doll clothes.
In Damascus, a Fulla doll sells for 825 Syrian Lira, or about $16. In a country where average per capita income hovers around $100 per month, that is steep.
And yet, according to Nawal al-Sayeedi, a clerk at the Space Toon toy store in the city’s upscale Abou Roumaneh neighborhood, Fulla flies off the shelves.
When Iman Telmaz took her two young daughters back-to-school shopping recently, disaster struck. Telmaz had promised the girls, 10-year-old Alia and 5-year-old Aya, brand new pink Fulla backpacks for the start of the school year, and the stores were sold out.
Telmaz resolved to keep looking. “The children love their Fulla dolls,” she said. “Aya is starting school for the first time, and has specially asked for a Fulla backpack. For these girls, it has to be Fulla.”
Sayeedi, the toy store clerk, said she felt sorry for parents. “If you’ve got a TV in the house, it’s Fulla all the time.
Parents complain about the expense,” Sayeedi said. “But Fulla gives girls a more Islamic character to emulate, and parents want that.” Not everyone sees Fulla as such a positive influence. Maan Abdul Salam, a Syrian women’s rights activist, said Fulla was emblematic of a trend toward Islamic conservatism sweeping the Middle East. Though statistics are hard to come by, he said, the percentage of young Arab women who wear the hijab is far higher now than it was a decade ago, and though many girls are wearing it by choice, others are being pressured to do so.
Fatima Ghayeh, who at 15 is a few years past playing with dolls herself, said she felt “sad that no one plays with Barbie anymore.” But, pressed for further explanation, Ghayeh, dressed in a white hijab and ankle-length khaki coat, appeared to change her mind.
“My friends and I loved Barbie more than anything,” she said. “But maybe it’s good that girls have Fulla now. If the girls put scarves on their dolls when they’re young, it might make it easier when their time comes. Sometimes it is difficult for girls to put on the hijab. They feel it is the end of childhood.”
“Fulla shows girls that the hijab is a normal part of a woman’s life,” she said.
But Jyza Sybai , a lanky, tomboyish Saudi 10-year-old, visiting Syria with her family for a short vacation, presented a dissenting opinion.
“All my friends have Fulla now, but I still like Barbie the best,” Jyza said. “She has blonde hair and cool clothes. Every single girl in Saudi looks like Fulla, with the dark hair and the black scarf.
“What’s so special about that?”