What will Ken do?

RazanneA Barbie doll with a prayer rug and a hijab? I don't have a lot of experience with Barbie Dolls (seriously!), but this seemingly incongruent combination struck me as one of those "signs of the times." The New York Times has the story:

Fulla roughly shares Barbie's size and proportions, but steps out of her shiny pink box wearing a black abaya and 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, 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 not to see little girls pedaling down the street on their Fulla bicycles, all in trademark "Fulla pink."

Apparently young girls are crazy about Fulla and their conservative parents are OK with the idea of buying one. I know my parents never allowed my three sisters to have Barbie Dolls, but they did have other, um, more modest, dolls to play with.

According to the NYT article, Fulla will never have a boyfriend, but will appear in plenty of advertising to promote the toy:

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 that, Mr. Abidin said, are "designed to convey Fulla's values."

A series of commercials seems more familiarly sales-oriented, starring 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!" says one commercial.

Not everyone is thrilled about this culture development, but it's for different reasons than one might think. Oh the fuss over a toy. Apparently the doll is too conservative. Perhaps Osama would approve? Here is what the progressives think:

Maan Abdul Salam, a Syrian women's rights advocate, 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.

"If this doll had come out 10 years ago, I don't think it would have been very popular," he said. "Fulla is part of this great cultural shift."

"Syria used to be a very secular country," he added, "but when people don't have anything to believe in anymore, they turn toward religion."

Can the social impact of children's play things really be that significant? (It's important to note that these are not legally Barbie dolls.) My parents certainly felt it could be by banning what so many other girls found a delightful toy. If this is the case, the NYT has certainly grabbed an important story with a clever, if entertaining, catch.

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