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“Fulla” - the Arab world’s Barbie

(DPA) / 25 November 2005

CAIRO - A dark-eyed, veiled doll called “Fulla” has invaded Arab toy chests, bringing a touch of the Moslem Middle East to a domain once dominated by the blonde blue-eyed Barbie.

Fulla, like many Muslim women in the Arab world, has two sets of clothing. Form-fitting, revealing outfits are sported at home, while items that cover the arms; legs, neck and often the hair are donned in public.

This concept of two wardrobes, and especially that of the conservative “outdoor” outfits, is what mainly distinguishes the Arab Barbie from her Western sister. Fulla’s clothes include cloaks and prayer outfits that conceal her long dark-brown hair.

The toy capitalizes on the islamization of cultural life in the Arab world as evidenced in a heightened focus on dress and rituals. The trend has gripped much of the region since the early 1990’s, in part due to the return of waves of migrant workers from the conservative oil-rich Gulf.

But the Arab doll is no dour hausfrau. Statuesque, like her American sister, she has wide eyes topped by thick eyelashes as well as tiny delicate feet.

Fulla, whose Arabic name is a type of flower, is not the first Barbie-like doll targeting Muslims, but her distribution in the Arab world has been more extensive and is backed by an advertising campaign on a regional satellite cartoon channel.

The popularity of the doll, which hit the shelves in November 2003, has outstripped those of other dolls targeting Muslims including an Iranian doll called Sara and another, Razanne, aimed at Arab Americans, according to the New York Times.

With her two wardrobes, Fulla taps into the Arab Muslim market by combining religious identity and femininity. The skirts in Fulla’s ”home” wardrobe may not rise north of the knee, but like her tops, many are close-fitting and brightly coloured. Many younger Arab women now sport these “home” outfits outdoors, topped with a scarf.

Growing interests

Fulla’s complexion is olive to Barbie’s peaches-and-cream, her hair is much thicker than Barbie’s blonde mane and her face fuller than that of the typical American, but otherwise she is much the same.

There is no such thing as a single “Arab look”, but Fulla’s button nose, bow mouth and svelte figure testify to the internationalization of Western standards of beauty over indigenous ideas of beauty. Few would contest that broader features and heavier figures are more the norm among Arab women.

Nonetheless, the thirst for an authentic toy, even if highly idealized, is strong. Ghada Said, a financial analyst in her twenties, although she has no children, says she would definitely buy a Fulla for her daughters. “It expresses something about the Arab world, because most girls are veiled these days,” she says.

Yet Said herself does not wear a veil and says she would want her own daughters to make up their own minds on the issue. “I don’t think that the doll tells little girls that they should be veiled, because they already see that most women in their families and around them are veiled.”

Little girls are equally interested in Fulla and Barbie, “but when a woman who wears a niqab (veil which covers the face save the eyes) comes in, you can be sure that she will buy Fulla for her daughter rather than Barbie,” said Hala Ibrahim, a saleswoman at ToysR Us store in Cairo.

Another part of the doll’s appeal, says Ibrahim, is price. Fulla, who is made in China, costs just under 10 dollars, while a genuine Barbie is approximately double that.

Meanwhile, like Barbie, Fulla has spawned a whole range of accessories, including beach toys, shoes and tennis rackets.

“The children know about Fulla from the toys with her name on it, not the doll itself,” says Asmaa Moustapha, a kindergarten teacher at a Cairo school, as she shepherds dozens of rambunctious five-year- olds through a shopping mall.

These items attract little girls who want Fulla everything, but also those whose parents cannot afford the doll itself.

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