Meet Fulla: The Barbie of the Middle East
By: Katie Teague/Arab America Contributing Writer
In 1959, the Barbie doll hit the toy market, capturing the hearts and imaginations of young girls around the world. What you may not know is that the Western Barbie we all know and love has quite the counterpart in the Middle East.
Meet Fulla, the “dark-eyed doll with… Muslim values”. Though similar in build to the blonde-hair blue-eyed figurine, Fulla sports a more conservative look that appeals to the majority of Muslim families. The doll was created in November of 2003 by Syrian company NewBoy Design Studio, who based the name off the Fulla Jasmine flower; a plant native to the Levant region.
Fulla was originally created out of the desire for a more modest toy to be used by Muslim children. Some of the dolls come with a prayer rug, hijab, and/or an abaya. These features are ideal for connecting youth to their cultural and religious identity; a process that is nearly impossible with the Western doll. Although Barbie is sold in the Middle East, it has faced several bans in the past in places like Saudi Arabia for being too “ “promiscuous” or “encouraging un-Islamic dress codes” “. According to a corporate communications manager in Jeddah:
“In the late 1980s…we used to get them (Barbie dolls) from abroad. Back then, they weren’t allowed to sell the doll, but they did sell the clothes, shoes and accessories. There weren’t many varieties back then, but my favorite Barbie was blonde with blue eyes. I remember that she had light pink heels, too.” Hatoon Al-Toukhi
Barbie even released several international variations of the doll, including two from Morocco and one from Egypt. However, none of them were anywhere near as successful as Fullla, which was quick to spread to the rest of the world in places like China, Brazil, North Africa, Egypt, Indonesia, and some parts of the U.S. In fact, during the first two years on the market, 1.5 million Fulla dolls were sold. That’s quite impressive.
In terms of Barbie and Fulla alternatives, variations of the Islamic doll have hit the market in the past. The New York Times mentions the following companies:
“Mattel markets a group of collectors’ dolls that include a Moroccan Barbie and a doll called Leila, intended to represent a Muslim slave girl in an Ottoman court. In Iran, toy shops sell a veiled doll called Sara. A Michigan-based company markets a veiled doll called Razanne, selling primarily to Muslims in the United States and Britain”.
When placed side by side, Barbie and Fulla convey interesting differences that go beyond their surfaces. Evidently, the ideas and values expressed by the two products are a direct representation of the cultures from which they originate. A fascinating analysis by Judith Lim Han from Folio Journal explores the conflicting qualities exhibited by Barbie and Fulla:
“There are starker contrasts in their characters and lifestyles: Barbie goes on dates with Ken Dolls, while Fulla, as seen in animations, is a devout Muslim who spends her time “read[ing] the Quran” and “performing her daily prayers”, the latter being one of the “five pillars of Islam”. Fulla also does not and will not have a boyfriend. Furthermore, Barbie has no doll parents and lives her own life, while Fulla is a family-oriented figure who lives with her parents and looks after her siblings.”
The success of each doll within their own culture comes as no surprise. If Fulla were to target mainstream American toy companies, the chances of it going as far as it would in the Middle East are highly unlikely. The same is true of the opposite scenario. While the intended consumers are youth, it is parents and family members who are subconsciously deciding what ideas to instill in their children when choosing Fulla or Barbie.
So what if we used this to encourage greater acceptance and diversity? Say NewBoy worked harder to promote their product around the United States and encouraged more children to play with Fulla, would the Western understanding of Islam change for the better? Though we may never know the answer to these questions, the success of the Arab world’s beloved Fulla goes to show how something as simple as a doll can contribute to a greater picture.