Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 June 2006
Issue No. 797
Living
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Move over, Barbie

Amany Abdel-Moneim checks out the doll market's latest star

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Hijab having spread phenomenally among young women in Egypt, a new doll who wears it, Fulla, has taken the toy scene by storm. Fulla -- named after a native species of jasmine and roughly the same size as Barbie at 11 inches -- has become a sensation across Egypt and the Middle East. She comes in a pink box, wearing a headscarf and a traditional abaya, a long-sleeved, ankle-length, black garment worn over clothes. Fulla has long black hair streaked with a dramatic burgundy. Her look is more reserved while long lashes glittering with mascara circle her large hazel eyes, and a hint of fuchsia tints her dainty lips. Fulla has run-of-the-mill accessories like a hairbrush and jewellery; she is also equipped with a prayer mat in sedate pink, and optional items like jeans, a T-shirt and all manner of colourful headscarves to match; like Barbie's own, most such options come at a price.

Launched by the Syrian-based New Boy Design Studio in November 2003, indeed, Fulla has taken over the main display areas of shops in Egypt and much of the Arab world, notably Saudi Arabia, where Barbie had been banned in September of the same year, with a government statement disparaging her "revealing clothes and shameful postures". Though not the first of her kind, Fulla's predecessors were never nearly as successful. Ahmed Ali, a Heliopolis toy store owner, puts Fulla in historical context: "There was a Moroccan Barbie once; there have been veiled dolls like Sara in Iran and Razanne in Britain, but Fulla is the first concept-based example, as it were: most Egyptian parents and children alike can readily relate to it... These days if you put Fulla on anything, you can be sure it will sell." Indeed, in conservative families especially, Fulla is fast turning into an obsession. For Sohaila Hassouna, nine, "Fulla is the best thing a girl can have. She lets a girl proudly proclaim self-respect and self-appreciation"; and her mother agrees, "I think it is high time Muslims became vocally proud of their religion."

Barbie has outfits for every occasion. She has been a rock star, an astronaut, even a US presidential candidate, which might make her appeal even more wide-ranging; but she does not represent the same Muslim values. For his part Rabie Hussein, chief salesman of a prominent toy store in Dokki, points out that many girls eager to dress like their dolls have, as a result, abandoned Barbie in favour of Fulla, claiming that the latter doll is "closer to our values". Likewise Samiha Mourtada, 65, speaking of her granddaughters: "It makes it easier for a girl to get used to the idea of wearing hijab, which can be difficult for some, while still at a very early age, so that she grows up with the idea embedded in her mind..."

Fulla is so popular she has been used in TV ads for cereal, chewing gum, stationary and bicycles -- with the girl models dressed like her on the screen. Her face has a kind look; she is a loving daughter, honest and helpful to her two friends, Yasmine and Nada, who have lighter hair; and she loves reading. According to Hussein, in addition, it is Fulla's love of fashion and numerous accessories that arguably makes her so popular. Samaa Abbas, six, didn't seem to be seeing anything else in the toy store. "I've wanted to buy Fulla since I first saw her on TV last year. I love her song, it's so nice to be holding her in my hand." Likewise Habiba Salem, seven, proudly pedalling on her Fulla bicycle: "I love Fulla and enjoy her many lovely outfits. And I adore the singing Fulla. I've always kept up with the latest Fulla accessories; I can find out about them as soon as they come out, on satellite TV." Farida Mohsen, nine, has eight Fulla dolls; she is of the same persuasion as Abbas, underlining the appeal of the pretty face, the large hazel eyes and long black hair: "She looks like me, I love her very much."

Where in other parts of the world Fulla might end up collecting dust, she is the best-selling doll in the Arab region as she embodies the image of a proper Muslim women. She wears not only modest clothes but traditional family values. As Mohamed Salah, sales manager of the same Dokki toy store puts it, "She is one of us, a sister, a mother and a wife. That's why I'd rather give Fulla than Barbie to my daughter as a present." This sense of belonging is further enhanced by Fulla's indoor costumes, which are just as revealing as Barbie's. "Fashionable skirts, bathing costumes," adds Salah, "even lace underwear -- the choices are overwhelming."

Some customers, like 23-year-old Madiha Raslan's daughter, will readily play with both Fulla and Barbie. Though happy to let her daughter have Barbie, Raslan is equally glad that she likes to play with "a doll that looks like women she sees every day". In many ways Fulla is as such more than a doll; more significantly, she is a bulwark against what many see as the erosion of Muslim values by modes of interaction imported from the West. Indeed Fulla will never have a boyfriend; instead she will metamorphose into Doctor Fulla and Teacher Fulla -- an embodiment of two of the more popular female careers. Yet there are those -- like Ibtesam Mahmoud, anthropologist -- who see Fulla as representing not Muslim cultural norms -- the way Barbie does for the West -- but rather a newer "conservative trend", making her part of a cultural transformation: "had this doll come out 10 years ago, I don't think it would have been very popular."

For their part feminists have declared both Barbie and Fulla guilty: whatever value system they purport to represent, they both hinder self-acceptance among teenagers, instilling a sense of normality that denies individuality and freedom, and reinforcing consumerist values and a beauty that can only be aspired to, never had. According to Dina Ali, 23, both Fulla and Barbie are dangerously unreal: "They both have the kind of figure every girl will want but never get: long legs, large breasts, itsy-bitsy waist. Setting such high standards for teenagers already obsessed with their bodies can only have a negative effect."

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