First Published: 2006-01-11

Veiled Fulla is Arab answer to Barbie

Sartorial evolution of little Muslim girls' toy dolls mirrors broader phenomenon of Islamisation in Arab society.


Middle East Online

By Malak Labib - CAIRO

Mideast Barbie doll Fulla has been selling like hot cakes

Move over Barbie, veiled is beautiful. The physical ideal of Muslim girls increasingly includes the hijab, as evidenced by toy shops' best-selling doll "Fulla" and the string of showbiz stars opting to cover up.

The dark-eyed and olive-skinned Fulla has replaced her American rival's skimpy skirts with more modest "outdoor fashion" and Barbie's luxuriant blonde mane with an Islamic veil.

"Fulla sells better because it is closer to our Arab values: she never reveals a leg or an arm," says Tarek Mohammed, chief salesman at a Toys'R'Us branch in Mohandessin, one of Cairo's more upmarket neighbourhoods.

The Arab answer to Barbie has been selling like hot cakes for Eid Al-Adha, the most important holiday in the Muslim calendar, not least because it is cheaper than its American rival, although both are made in China.

Fulla is not the first Islamic doll but none of her predecessors have taken the regional market by storm like she has, selling some two million since its creation two years ago by the Emirates-based NewBoy Design Studio.

Saudi Arabia's religious police had then just banned "Barbie the Jewish doll", whose "revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West."

Fulla, named after an Arabic word for a type of jasmine, was initially sold in the Gulf in a similar pink box but in more modest attire, such as the traditional abaya overdress and complete with a little prayer mat.

"Her wardrobe had to be widened to adapt to the Egyptian market. In other words, she became more modern," said Ahmed, a sales clerk at City Stars, Cairo's largest shopping mall.

Fulla can now dress her perfect albeit slightly less busty figure with tight t-shirts and jeans and wear the same colourful head scarves donned by most young Egyptian women today.

Fulla also has two female friends, Yasmine and Nada, with lighter hair.

But she is still single as no plans appear to be afoot for marketing an Islamic equivalent of Ken, as giving her a boyfriend would be seen inappropriate in conservative Muslim cultures.

But a mass marketing campaign, including TV commercials and dozens of by-products ranging from cereals to school stationery, is not the only reason for Fulla's ever-growing popularity.

The sartorial evolution of little Muslim girls' toy dolls mirrors a broader phenomenon of Islamisation in Arab culture and society, which is no longer incompatible with hip and glamour.

When a wave of Egyptian singers, actresses and belly-dancers first donned the veil in the 1970s and 1980s on the advice of influential sheikh Mohammed Metwalli al-Shaarawi, it often entailed retirement from the spotlight.

But Islamic fashion is now something to be cashed in on.

In 2002, Egyptian actress Abeer Sabry announced she ended her career to become a more devout Muslim and followed classes by Amr Khaled and Habib bin Ali, two young and very popular Islamic "televangelists".

But far from slipping back into anonymity, she was promptly drafted to present an Islamic talk show on a satellite network and says she is now hoping for a veiled comeback on the silver screen.

The former star actress, who still wears lipstick but whose hair is neatly tucked under a hijab, admitted she has not yet received any offers but insisted her modern Islamic look will pay off rather than undermine her career.

"About 70 percent of Egyptian women are veiled, and women and girls would love to see me in a new movie," she told Al-Wafd newspaper recently.


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