Saturday, November 28, 2009

On "Burqa Barbie": Girls, You Can Be Whatever You Want! Except a Muslim.


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:

"Just forcing the burkha upon women is terribly degrading. When one considers the horrible culture of genital mutliation, stonings, honor killings and the rest of the degradation forced upon Muslim women, it is appalling a doll maker or any other organization would manufacture the Burkha Barbie. Islam is deeply seated in barbarism and violence. There is no good that comes from this “religion.” Only death and violence. All the PC wishes in the progressive world cannot hide or deny the violence perpetuated by Islam and its followers. Of course, you will hear nothing about Burkha Barbie from the mainstream media and (lesbian and ugly) women’s groups such as NOW. Women’s groups don’t care about women…they only care about women aborting babies."

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.”

Okey-doke. So: covering is always about men controlling women. (Scary, violent, mostly Brown men who will murder you as soon as look at you! Because hey, if history has taught us nothing it's that white, Christian, European men LOVE women's rights. Love 'em!) In this paradigm Muslim and Arab women have no agency whatsoever to make choices that shape their lives. They need white feminists to save them. So that's the liberal feminist position. Check. And if we go a bit further to the right?

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.

My bad.

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.


  1. lol, Angry White Dude needs to be punched in the dick. Michelle Malkin needs to be punched in the cunt.

    That's all.

  2. Thanks for your insightful analysis of my post on Angry White Dude. Why am I not surprised you are a "performance and multi-media artist ahd scholar" (read: unemployed) from Lebanon!

    You've had your blog since 2000 and have a Alexa ranking of 5.7 million. Angry White Dude has been in existence 18 months and is ranked 187,000. Looks like there are more Angry White Dudes than unemployed performance and multi-media scholars! As for your blog, I came, I read, I yawned.

    Peace be unto you and enjoy your Barbie!


  3. Wait, you're from Lebanon? So why are you always going on about Philly?

  4. @Anthony
    Because I am from Philadelphia.

    Thanks for stopping by but these are not the droids you are looking for.

    But, uh, may the force be with you too.

  5. Dilutedly-brown Mozlem lady says: this is a great post!

  6. Wow, Joe. Your burqa posts bring all the nuts to the yard. I'd laugh but it just isn't funny anymore.

    P.S. -- Nothing says "I have a really, really small penis" like citing an Alexa rating!

  7. Angry White Dude, why so angry?

    Is your dick so small that you envy my friend, a multi-media artist from Lebanon/Philly, who does his own things and lives his own life?

    Is your blog so insignificant, that you feel the need to compare your blog based on Alexa ratings?

    LOL!!! It's the Internet, dude, no one cares how big or small your blog (*cough dick cough* is.

    Stop being such a fucking retard, dude, and go get laid. It'll make you feel better.

  8. @possumstew
    You aren't lying.

    But really the only thing I have ever argued for in writing about the veil is that we (including me) should shut up and listen to the women who have a direct relationship with the practice. That alone seems to be enough to frighten and anger some people to the point of craziness--the idea that Arab and Muslim women might have a point of view of their own.

  9. Smart piece, Joe.

    I'm not sure if I agree that only the women involved in the practice should be able to comment on it. Obviously, years and years of fear and oppression would affect their voice on the topic.

    In the same breath, it's always annoying when the PC front comes crashing through the door with their Holier than Thou take.

    Barbie. Man, that chick has caused some serious trouble for being a fucking doll!

    As for AWD, I'm so impressed with his big, fat ratings! Nothing like someone measuring their Alexa rating on a daily basis. Almost like someone pulling out a ruler to measure their...darn, got to go!

  10. I dunno. A lot of fussing here directed at western commentators who are distressed at increasing Islamic presence in their societies. Well, okay. But I have been reading various blogs on the middle east especially by muslim women and it has been pretty horrible for me. It isn't a 'whose dick is longer' contest. If you want to pay attention to women's issues, pay attention to women. I suggest

    saudi womans weblog
    save the women
    mona eltahawy

    I think a chunk of the backlash against Islam in the west is because of real values conflicts.

  11. @Beth
    Thanks. I'm not saying that ONLY Islamic feminists should comment on the practice: I said I think they should take the lead in any discussion about them. As far as internalized oppression is concerned, who decides? The dynamic between internalized oppression and personal choice is a slippery one: why does anyone choose to do anything? I still think women with a direct relationship to the practice are in the best position to parse that distinction

    We agree that women should take the lead on women's issues but I am disturbed by your "clash of civilizations" rhetoric: it's very 19th century. Muslims live all over the world (which is why a term like the "Islamic world" is problematic--because it usually refers only to the Middle East/North Africa.) So if Muslims live everywhere then they are not the alien element in the west that you seem to think they are. Are there cultural differences? Sure. But that is hardly exclusive to Islamic culture(s) in the west. So I disagree that a "chunk of the backlash against Islam in the west is because of real values conflicts" Islam was demonized in the west by the Church a long time ago and those stereotypes never went away but rather became part of the western imagination. There is no backlash against Islam in the west because it was never accepted in the first place.

  12. Excellent post, Joseph.

    AWD's post displays only ignorance and bigotry, repeated in his comment above. The Alexa rankings are cited for what purpose, exactly? To show that his site is frequented by lots of other bigots? Or maybe lots of people just stop in to see how much of an asshole he is...

  13. your point: I disagree that a "chunk of the backlash against Islam in the west is because of real values conflicts" Islam was demonized in the west by the Church a long time ago and those stereotypes never went away but rather became part of the western imagination. There is no backlash against Islam in the west because it was never accepted in the first place.

    Yes Islam was never accepted in the west (well, what about Spain?) but that assumes a continuity between the past and present: non-acceptance unchanging.

    There has been a change, which may boil down to anxiety about an increasing Islamic presence in the west. So you have non-acceptance confronting presence.

    But I totally disagree with you about the sources of this anxiety. Some, yes, due to cultural and religious prejudices. But much related to conflicts in values, based on incidents too numerous to mention, unless you willingly ignore them.

    The standards of what constitutes justice under Islamic law for women are absurd and tragic - to name only one issue. There are other more purely cultural troublesome areas - arranged marriages against consent, etc etc. If you do not see plainly the issues here, you are seeing selectively.

  14. @anonymous
    Yes, I am presuming a continuity between the present and the past re: Islamophobia: it (and its close cousin and precursor, orientalism)is among the foundational discourses in the West. In other words, the "West" requires it in order to imagine itself as itself. There is a rich body of literature devoted to this notion, your disagreement notwithstanding.

    I am not ignoring any incidents, merely suggesting that none of them--even the most violent and misogynistic--are typical to Islamic cultures. Violence against women is pervasive and not limited to particular cultures or religions. By pretending that they are, we obscure the depth of the problem and indulge racist fantasies.

    More to the point: my post is about the responses to the appearance of an overtly Islamic Barbie doll, many of which mask racilaized Islamophobia with feminist concern, a tactic that has a long history in the West.
    I am not an expert in Islamic law--and it seems neither are you, although since you choose to post anonymously it is impossible to tell. I am happy to post dissenting opinions if they inspire debate but I am out of patience with anonymous comments that stray so far from the original topic.

    If you comment again, please choose a name first and respond to the post at hand.


  15. I'm sure "Angry White Dude" would have a blog rated even higher during the 1950s.

    Being part of an unintellectual and collective ignorance is nothing to be proud of, Mr. Angry White Dude.

  16. Sad but not suprising. As a muslimah by choice with the freedom to practice as I see fit, I know first hand that many muslim sisters choose the burka by choice.It still amazes me how some people who are ignorant of all the facts love to make blanket statements about a situation as a whole. Are there women who are forced absolutely but there are just as many women who are not, people should learn to help those in need and respect those that are not. Jazakallah khair my friend for posting this interesting story.

  17. Refer to my own post about something similar

    wednesday 25th April 2007

    talking about Barbie and the Fulla doll from Syria which was basically a Barbie with a headscarf and a prayer mat.

  18. STOP: giving things meaning people, BECAUSE they don't need one.

    Barbies are like Robots- they are TOYS, and kids play with 'em for FUN~ not because it represents their culture or religion.

    GAWD: it is exactly like how people have given meaning to a piece of materail. Hence. the outcome; Burqa= sign of oppression
    Hijab = people who wear it has cancer
    Sikh Turban= it is used as a space to keep their wallet in.
    Jewish Yamaka = it helps protect their temporal lobes.


    STOP giving things meaning, and making shit up.

    This is by an Aussie-Muslim-Hijab-Chik...!!