Italian designer Eliana Lorena created over 500 Barbie dolls for an auction hosted by Sotheby's for Save the Children. The dolls, created to coincide with Barbie's 50th anniversary, represent women from all over the world and three of the 500+ are meant to be from Islamic cultures and are covered to varying degrees.
The UK Daily Mail article on the exhibition (titled "It's Barbie in a burkha: World-famous doll gets a makeover to go under the hammer for 50th anniversary") quotes a Barbie collector with over 250 dolls in her collection who said, "I think this is really important for girls, wherever they are from they should have the opportunity to play with a Barbie that they feel represents them... I know Barbie was something seen as bad before as an image for girls, but in actual fact the message with Barbie for women is you can be whatever you want to be." This response, while decidedly Barbie-centric (more on that later), is a pretty reasonable assessment of the goal of the project, which was designed to be inclusive.
Nevertheless, the presence of dolls representing covered, Muslim women has driven a strange-bedfellows-coalition of establishment feminists, Zionists and Christo-conservatives completely APESHIT. The dolls are not being mass produced, but were designed for the purpose of the charity auction, however the fear-mongering rhetoric around the auction has suggested otherwise. While such Islamophobic/Orientalist rhetoric itself is nothing new, the dust up over the production of so-called "burqa Barbies" is instructive of the way these particular racist themes are expressed on the western Right AND Left. Let's have a look, shall we?
The amusingly-named blog Angry White Dude (which is subtitled, In defense of the the most ridiculed and unappreciated being on the planet... THE WHITE MALE. I am not making this up), covers the Barbie-imbroglio thusly:
In other words, for the "Dude" the Arab/Islamic world is a single monoculture wherein every bad thing that happens to women at the hands of men is permitted, justified by religion and even celebrated. And that is Bad. However, homegrown American feminists are ugly, abortion-loving lesbians. This dynamic, justifying colonial violence under the premise of feminist concern while simultaneously denigrating western women who demand rights like reproductive freedom at home, is an old patriarchal trick designed to use the concerns of women against them. But apparently no one seems to notice (or care) that such "civilization-building" projects are less about freeing Arab/Muslim women from local patriarchy than it is about installing a new-and-improved colonial version. Or, that the loudest male western voices critiquing the position of women in the Arab and Islamic worlds often actively work against the rights of women in their home countries.
However, despite his thoughtful analysis, it turns out the "Dude" is wrong, mainstream feminists are all over this Barbie thing. Marcia Pappas, President of the New York State National Organization of Women (NOW) released this statement,
“As feminists we believe that women must be able to make their own choices and that includes choices about the clothing they wear. But the burqa is more than a choice. Women are forced to wear the burqua or risk being murdered. Mattel should be ashamed. Making a profit by selling a doll that is clearly wearing a symbol of violence is not acceptable and there should be a public outcry to take this doll off the market.”
Feminist/Orientalist/Zionist Phylis Chesler's article on the dolls screeches, " What will they think of next? A be-headed doll?" (I wonder who she means by "they"? The list of related articles running alongside Chesler's "Boycott Burqa Barbie" includes, "Under the Islamic Veil: Faces Disfigured by Acid", so that should give you an idea where she is coming from). She writes,
"A wonderful Muslim feminist hero just stayed with me for a week. She is a lawyer and an author. Her name is Seyran Ates, she is a Turkish-German, and she lives in Berlin. Like Algerian-American professor Marnia Lazreg, whose book about the Islamic Veil I’ve previously discussed, Ates absolutely opposes the veil in any form. She will not wear a headscarf. Ates is a religious Muslim woman."
Oh, okay. You know a Muslim woman and she agrees with you. Well that changes everything.
Although... if there are religious Muslim women who don't wear the scarf --and become lawyers and scholars and get to stay in your guestroom even-- then there must not be a direct relationship between Islam, covering and violence against women after all? Or are they safe from such oppression only in the West? And because they are halfsies? Is that the point, that their big brown badness has been properly diluted by western blood and culture? Ahhh, so it's not Islam per se, but rather those scary brown men of Africa/The Middle East/ South Asia who are racially predisposed to violence, you have to get rid of. Got it. Chesler concludes, "Mattel: take Burqa Barbie off the market. Parents: Boycott it. Calling all Charities: Save the children from it." Like her left-er leaning colleagues Chesler is calling for a boycott of Mattel for daring to acknowledge that covered women even exist. The logical paradox here: that the best way to support such women is to not allow them to be represented at all, seems to not bother anyone.
And a tick or two further Right on the crazy-lady meter?
Pin-up girl for internalized racial/orientalist self-hatred, Michelle Malkin writes, "No word yet on whether the dolls will be subjected to female genital mutilation or come with stoning pits in order to accurately represent their 'diversity.'" Yeah, diversity really sucks, Michelle. It inevitably leads to female genital cutting. Let's burn some books!
Malkin echoes the Dude's earlier point about genital cutting--a chorus that is echoed throughout the blogosphere, equating covering with genital cutting and then globalizing both throughout the entire Arab and Islamic worlds. Once again, these conflations rely on a blatantly racialized imaginary Islam, which flattens cultural differences between countries and confuses cultural practices for religious ones. Cutting is practiced mostly in Africa and Asia while Muslims live all over the world. The styles and requirements around covering differ greatly throughout the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Even within single countries covering is not always consistent and there is no direct relationship between covering and religious piety. And there are significant historical examples of women assuming the veil specifically to frustrate their colonizers, as in Algeria and Palestine... But you probably knew that already, right?
As I've said before, I have no attachment to covering one way or the other. It isn't a religious or cultural value in my family. And like a lot of people who write about the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia I am weary of rehashing the same arguments about covering over and over. Which is not say that covering, like pretty much everything else connected to women can't be used against them. But the point I consistently return to is: what do Muslim feminists have to say about the practice? And then I take my cues from them. As far as I'm concerned, the fact that all of this "outrage" and "concern" for Muslim and Arab women doesn't ever translate into a large-scale western platform for their voices tells the tale.
Neither am I especially interested in the gender politics around Barbie dolls, whose dubious history as icons of femininity has been well-documented by others. Like the veil, Barbie has been reviled as a tool of the patriarchy and celebrated as a strategic weapon against it. I have no problem admitting that I have no idea which is the proper take, although it seems to me that such a range of interpretations suggests that simple answers are reductive and arbitrary. And, not incidentally, politically motivated.
So for me the element of this Barbie scandal that is most telling is that it was instigated merely through the presence of dolls representing unambiguously Islamic women. Imagine what might happen if they actually spoke.
The entire spectrum of western politics is invested in the silence of Muslimahs, from aggrieved white men to mainstream feminists whose common concern, the overriding threat of super-violent, oppressive maleness emanating from the East, unites them. So in the end, this conflict over Barbie dolls is not about Arab and Islamic women at all. If it were, someone might have asked them how they felt and taken their thoughts into consideration before making sweeping racist, culturally and historically inaccurate statements. Rather, this--like almost everything else-- is really about the threatening specters of Arab and Islamic boogeymen, who must be conquered, controlled and/or destroyed to preserve "our" way of life.