Barbie struts into an Islamic stronghold

To many hard-line clerics in Iran, the most insidious cultural threat to the values of the Islamic revolution comes in a hot pink box and sits on toyshop shelves.

Barbie, with her curvaceous body, miniskirts, and platinum-blond hair, hardly represents the Islamic image of women fostered in Iran. Here, women must cover their hair in public. Lipstick is a sign of defiance.

But the American icon - which is one of the most sought-after toys worldwide - is a big hit with Iranian girls. Despite Iran officially being a closed society, Barbie is sold on the open market. It's led some to say that Barbie is heading up an unwanted "cultural invasion" from the West that has also brought hamburgers and Hollywood.

Iranian officials raced to turn out an acceptable, Islamic answer to Barbie in time for the 20th anniversary of the revolution, which was Feb. 11. But the production date for Sara and her brother Dara has been set back to spring for lack of "suitable hair."

"About Barbie, we not only think it is not good for our children here, we think it is not suitable for American children," says Majid Qaderi, a director at the Institute of Children and Young Adults Development Center in Tehran, which has designed the new dolls.

But Barbie nevertheless is being groomed for abroad. Jill Barad, the chief executive of Mattel Inc., which is based in El Segundo, Calif., and makes Barbie, has made a major push to expand into global markets.

In Mr. Qaderi's view, Barbie dolls "only teach consumerism" and cause children to grow up too fast. "Bad influences" include profligate dress, makeup, and an example of "unlimited freedom of relationships ... between boys and girls."

"Barbie is a symbol of American culture," says Qaderi. "The first thing we can do is teach our children about who they are [as Iranians], about their own culture.... We have to act in a way that the kids themselves reject the bad part [of Western culture] and absorb the good part."

'Westernization' of Iran

Barbie dolls are not the only American influence on the lives of Iranians, who had a long experience with Western culture prior to the 1979 revolution. That watershed event was in part a violent reaction to the extensive "Westernization" of Iranian society by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi.

The result was a theocratic Islamic regime that sought to restrict outside influence on Iranians. Now, Western movies and music are prohibited.

But many Iranians had seen the blockbuster film "Titanic" within a week of its release in the United States last year - often watching bootleg videotapes that had been shot with a hand-held camcorder in a movie theater. Western music is another hot commodity: Sometimes smugglers hide as many as 30 CDs under their clothing. And the popularity of hamburgers, pizza, and imitation Nike shoes means that countering this "invasion" has been difficult.

For children, the American influence is quite apparent: Barbie dolls, which cost $25 to $30 each, share shelf space with videos and toys that range from Batman and Power Rangers to Snow White and Pocahontas.

"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.

"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."

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