Can Fulla save Muslim girls from Barbie?

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Currently, little girls from Iraq to Morocco are crazy for Fulla, a creation of Syria's NewBoy Design Studio. A Barbie in a black hijab, with a smaller bust, and far more modest clothing, Fulla was created out of concern that Barbie would corrupt traditional values, turning Muslim girls into high-heeled wonders with vacant smiles. And while sloe-eyed, darkhaired Fulla does have a vacant smile, she also has abayas (traditional Muslim overdress), head scarves, a prayer mat, and outdoor (modest) versus indoor (anything where her plastic flesh shows) fashion.

There will soon be "Teacher Fulla" and "Doctor Fulla." There are not, so far, any plans for a Muslim version of Ken. Fulla, and products that carry her name - bicycles, CD players, clothing - sell impressively across the Muslim Middle East. Over 1.5 million Fullas (made in China, like Barbie) have been sold in the past two years. Little Muslim girls seem to prefer her, and their parents certainly do.

In short, this doll, marketed with "Muslim values," is meant to keep girls on the straight and narrow. Sound familiar? Remember the fuss when Barbie declared math to be hard? As though a doll could cause a billion 7-year-old girls to fold up their multiplication tables on the grounds of "If Barbie doesn't like it, why should I?"

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There exists, amid these concerns, an apparent belief that young girls are hopelessly malleable. It's as if those who purport to care the most about young girls underestimate their intelligence. Otherwise, why the assumption that a girl - either raised in the West or in the Islamic world - is so half-witted she will believe she should grow up to be like her doll? Further, why does no one seem concerned that action figures might make boys uncommunicative and obsessed with working out?

Dolls can never win. If they are Barbie-esque, we blame them for our daughters' poor grades, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. As for those "wholesome" dollmakers, they'd better be sure they don't affiliate with anyone even remotely untoward, or they'll find their products stuck on the shelf.

American Girl, a collection of historically themed dolls complete with accessories and books featuring their adventures, is facing such a challenge from conservative groups. The Chicago Pro-Life Action League is planning a demonstration on Nov. 25 outside Chicago's American Girl Place, where the dolls are sold. The reason? American Girl (owned by Mattel) donated $50,000 to Girls Inc. - an organization that supports abortion rights, as well as abstinence and birth control, and also encourages support for girls struggling with their sexuality. But Girls Inc.'s primary focus is its sponsorship of math, science, and athletic programs for underprivileged girls.

That pro-life parents object to Girls Inc.'s position on abortion is understandable. But if one's daughter grows up to support Roe v. Wade, it won't be because of her American Girl doll. When did choosing a doll become such a momentous decision?

Barbie, Fulla, and American Girls are dolls, not role models or political symbols. I loved my Barbie dolls. But I never thought I had to be like them any more than I thought I had to look like Raggedy Ann. Surely girls are not so tractable, or unable to ask questions, as some appear to think. It's hard to believe a doll could have a more profound impact on a girl than her family. If parents in Syria would prefer their daughter not dress scantily, they will set the example. If parents in North America wish self-confidence for their daughter, they can help her find the way, rather than enlisting her dolls.

If only girls were so governable by plastic playthings. We could create an "Invests-Well Barbie." Better still, we could branch out, and get those people at NewBoy to create a "Discourages-Her-Son-From-Strapping-Dynamite-to-His-Body-and-Walking-Into-a-Crowded-Market Fulla." Unfortunately, influencing young minds isn't such child's play.

Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.

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