Western culture has lost another battle in the clash of civilizations as Barbie dons the burqa. Burkha Barbie, by Italian designer Eliana Lorena, will be among the dolls auctioned by Sotheby's in a benefit for the nongovernment charity Save the Children. The message to little girls worldwide: Abandon all hope.
Barbie has long been a source of controversy. Critics have taken the iconic doll to task for implicitly promoting an unrealistic body image among young girls. In 1992, Teen Talk Barbie was denounced for saying, "I love shopping!" among other things. This year's Totally Stylin' Tattoos Barbie comes complete with a tasteless "tramp stamp" on her back.
But the upside of Barbie and the image Mattel has cultivated is inspiring the notion of unlimited possibilities. Barbie could be anything a girl wanted her to be - a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut, a homemaker. By extension, this prompts girls to develop lofty aspirations in a society that accepts and nurtures them.
Barbie, however, is viewed as a threat in the Middle East, where subjugation of women is a cherished practice. Western cultural influence in general threatens this "peculiar institution," and Barbie has been singled out as a particularly corrupting influence.
Saudi Arabia banned Barbie in September 2003. The government Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice denounced Barbie's "revealing clothing, lewd postures and accessories" as "symbols of decadence of the perverted West." The Saudis also claimed Barbie is Jewish. "Let us beware of her dangers and be careful," the commission warned.
In April 2008, Iran's Ayatollah Ghorban Ali Dorri-Najafabadi called for a Barbie ban in the Islamic republic. Iran produces an alternative doll called Sara (and a Ken analogue called Dara) that passes Islamic muster and sells for a fraction of the price of the contraband Mattel Barbies. But dowdy Sara has failed to capture the imagination of Iranian children, who see her as an emblem of the life they want to escape. Forbidden Barbie is much more appealing, especially because the power structure sees her as a threat. Iranian girls don't get cool points for owning Sara.
The hard-line Iranian newspaper Kahyan editorialized, "Barbie is an emissary of nudity and promotes moral corruption and consumerism of the West." The doll is "produced with the evil intention of destroying [Iranian] identity." We doubt that Mattel is actively seeking to undermine Iranian culture, but Barbie does have the effect of opening a world of possibilities to young girls suffering from institutionalized oppression in the Middle East. Barbie inspires thoughts and aspirations the power structure in the region cannot tolerate.
Iranian dissident Shahla Azizi wrote, "Barbie is the symbol of a woman from a place that gives her equal rights and considers her a full human being." No wonder the ayatollahs are frightened of the little doll.
We are surprised that Save the Children is so excited about Burkha Barbie. By rights, it should condemn the doll. By its own accounts, Save the Children seeks to create "a world in which every child is ensured the right to survival, protection, development and participation." We wonder if Burkha Barbie will have acid thrown in her face if she removes the burqa, which is the current fad among hard-core Islamists in Afghanistan targeting schoolgirls who abjure the offensive garment. If the doll were anatomically correct, we might expect to see Genital Mutilation Barbie.
As this new wave of political correctness seizes the imagination and occupies the toy industry, we could well see Suicide Vest Ken being stopped at a checkpoint by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" G.I. Joe.