Barbie struts into an Islamic stronghold
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"So much of the discussion of a 'cultural invasion' is useless, with the expansion of global communications, satellite TV, the Internet, and so much information," says Bobak, a toyshop owner in downtown Tehran.Skip to next paragraph
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"If we really care about this 'cultural invasion,' we should be strong enough to influence our own culture, instead of being afraid of [Western] influence on us," he says.
The Iranian Sara and Dara dolls are meant to do just that, Qaderi says. They have an "eastern look" with brown hair and brown eyes, and Sara wears a removable head covering called a "hijab" that shows only the face.
Though in Iran these are almost always worn in dark colors, Sara will have several bright choices. She will have a handful of costumes of different ethnic groups in Iran, and - in a compromise that mirrors her American counterpart - she will come with a comb.
There will also be Sara-Dara computer games, musical tapes, and a storybook. "Children really don't care much [whether they play with an Islamic doll]," says Qaderi. "They don't make as big an issue out of it as we adults are making."
But at an international trade fair in Tehran last fall, children lined up to learn about the new dolls.
Interest was high, officials and toyshop owners say, because any new toy on the market is met with excitement, and because children are more familiar with the hijab-clad Sara in their daily lives than with the partygoing Western Barbie.
Still, "The walls are crumbling down. It's been a gradual erosion," says a Western diplomat in Tehran. Some three years ago, Iranian girls wore pictures of Mickey Mouse on their dark gowns during an official march. "You have a more educated population here than neighboring countries, which increases the appetite for world culture."
Finding good in Western culture
Despite warnings from Iranian extremists about the myriad plots hatched by the "Great Satan" - as some here still call the US - the moderate President Mohamad Khatami has made clear that Iran can learn from and find good in Western civilization, in concert with the depth of its own 2,500-year history.
Differentiating between good and bad aspects of Western culture may be the key to harnessing the taste for it, instead of a total rejection of anything Western, some Iranians say.
"A 'cultural invasion' may come, but it comes divided into both good and bad," says a young office worker in Tehran. "Technical expertise and research are an invasion? If so, why not have that? Bad things might come, but in your culture movies are not [necessarily] a bad thing. They are used to inform your people."
Qaderi recognizes that no amount of effort can shut off Western cultural influence in Iran. The key is to provide young Iranians with the foundation to judge for themselves.
"The children of the world all belong to one nation, but the authorities in each country are responsible for those in their own society," he says. "Indeed, we were scared about [the 'cultural invasion']," but now he concludes that "we don't need to be that fearful because we have the capability of confronting it."