According to Iran's judiciary, the most dangerous items in a Tehran toy shop are not the lifelike pistols and sub-machine guns in the display case. The authorities have instead singled out the hot-pink boxes showcasing Barbie dolls as the real portents of a Western "cultural invasion."
Illegally imported Barbie dolls are "destructive culturally and a social danger," Iranian prosecutor Ghorban Ali Dori Najafabadi warned in a letter last April. Barbie, Batman, Spiderman, and Harry Potter toys, he wrote, are a "danger that needs to be stopped." He added: "Undoubtedly, the personality and identity of the new generation and our children, as a result of unrestricted importation of toys, has been put at risk and caused irreparable damage."
The curvaceous and often scantily clad Barbie dolls with peroxide-blond hair and a suggestion of unbridled Western fun are seen here as a direct challenge to the conservative and religious sensibilities officials hope to encourage. But a decade-long, anti-Barbie campaign waged by hard-liners has met with little success.
Toy sellers have yet to hear about new rules limiting the sale of Barbie, once famously labeled a "Trojan Horse with many cultural invading soldiers inside it."
"We never heard an official statement" against selling the dolls, says the owner of a toy shop in downtown Tehran, where the Fashion Fever Barbie and Barbie Glamour Pup are squeezed between Westernized knockoffs such as the Juicy Bling doll and Action Man. "Those kids who watch foreign television and [illegal] satellite want Barbie dolls," says the shop owner, who asked not to be named.
But of the three to four dolls he sells per day, only one or two a week are Barbies. Even 15 years ago, the shop owner found that a shipping container-worth of imported Barbie paraphernalia sold more slowly than he had hoped. But he says that has more to do with a small market and competition from other Western dolls than the government crackdown.
Official efforts to create an Iranian version called Sara also failed to stem Barbie's popularity. First slated for roll out in 1999 for the 20th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, dolls of Sara and her brother Dara were delayed for lack of "suitable hair," officials told the Monitor at the time. But the first prototypes made in Iran reportedly did not appeal to children, and the job was then contracted to China, where Barbie dolls are also made.
The first Sara and Dara dolls were launched in spring 2002, when a crackdown on Barbie led one north Tehran shop owner to tell the London daily The Guardian that a morality police squad had confiscated $11,000 worth of Barbie merchandise and detained him for three days.
At the time of its release, Sara was one of the first attempts at marketing a Muslim doll. In 2003, Syrian designers introduced Fulla, a dark-eyed doll with "Muslim values," which met with some success. Within two years, 1.5 million Fulla dolls had been sold across the Middle East. A Michigan-based company also launched a veiled doll called Razanne in 2003, geared towards Muslims in the United States and Britain. Last year, Salma dolls in headscarves and ankle-length dresses were launched in Indonesia.
But during a recent visit to a downtown Tehran toy shop, there were no Sara and Dara dolls on the shelf because they simply don't sell. "They are very heavy and stiff – [there's] a baby character and a big doll and they are twice the price," explains the shop owner.
Iranians "who have seen Sara and Dara advertisements abroad come and buy them because they are 'traditional,'" he says. "But kids who live here, they never ask for it." Sara and Dara "are a good idea, if they can make something similar to these [Barbies] with a chador or headscarf. Kids might say 'this looks cool' and buy it," adds the owner. "As a toy seller, I would prefer these all to be locally produced ... [but] you can't compare. They are different dolls."