September 23, 2005
Will Fulla and Barbie Ever Have Tea Together?
I’ve just had a grueling few weeks attending back-to-back conferences and dealing with other work-related idiocy. As a result, I’ve fallen behind on ‘Aqoul correspondence, but I would like to thank everyone for their emails. Will be catching up slowly over the next few days, but in the meantime a tidbit from the New York Times (evaluna posted the link earlier today):
Young girls here are obsessed with Fulla, and conservative parents who would not dream of buying Barbies for their daughters seem happy to pay for a modest doll who has her own tiny prayer rug, in pink felt. Children who want to dress like their dolls can buy a matching, girl-size prayer rug and cotton scarf set, all in pink...
"This isn't just about putting the hijab on a Barbie doll," Mr. Abidin said. "You have to create a character that parents and children will want to relate to. Our advertising is full of positive messages about Fulla's character. She's honest, loving, and caring, and she respects her father and mother."
Though Fulla will never have a boyfriend doll like Barbie's Ken, Mr. Abidin said, a Doctor Fulla and a Teacher Fulla will be introduced soon. "These are two respected careers for women that we would like to encourage small girls to follow," he said.
Barbie, already a controversial doll in the US for her improbable proportions, slinky outfits and whiny complaints about math, would obviously encounter some cultural resistance in the Middle East. The well-muscled, jet setting boyfriend doesn’t help either (though I am led to understand that Ken and Barbie are no longer an item). "It is hard to explain to the kid just who that man is in Barbie's life," says a Cairo television producer and mother of a pre-teen girl.
As the article rightly notes, Fulla is not a new idea. In a 2003 CNN article, the creator of Razzane (another Muslim doll) explained his toy's message:
"The main message we try to put forward through the doll is that what matters is what's inside you, not how you look"...
"It doesn't matter if you're tall or short, thin or fat, beautiful or not, the real beauty seen by God and fellow Muslims is what's in your soul"
Similar to Razzane, Fulla aspires to professional careers such as teaching and medicine. Her ever-present hijab concerns some women’s rights activists, who worry that Fulla reflects the growing trend of Islamic conservatism in the Mideast. Hijabs are now a potent symbol and many younger women are wearing them by choice to demonstrate their commitment to Islam (and perhaps to demonstrate rejection of Western culture). Whenever I come across feminist writing on the veil, it usually focuses on the superficial patriarchal-oppression angle without really addressing how Muslim women view their Western counterparts. At the same time, it’s difficult for me to understand why some Muslim women writers insist that the hijab worn by choice is not oppressive. To be honest, my initial reaction to this perspective was that Mideast women had internalized patriarchal values and thus could not easily be convinced to see things in a different way (particularly if the alternate view came from a Western or Western-influenced writer). The problem of course, is that I implicitly assumed that Western feminism was the pinnacle of women’s liberation, without considering alternate paths to similar goals. I think this point is especially important when considering some aspects of legal gender inequality in sharia law and how to address them in a constructive way.
At the risk of digressing too far from the Muslim doll phenomenon, here is an illustrative quote on women by Nigerian politician and writer, Usman Bugaje:
[Western] women, more than the men, have perhaps been the greatest victims of this secular liberalism, not only because the campuses are becoming increasingly unsafe as they have to live under the threat of rape and variety of harassment, but more because the women appear to be increasingly confused about their role in society. Having imbibed Western ideas of freedom, and progress, like their Western models, they confuse equality with uniformity and strive to look and work like men and compete with men rather than complement them. Instead of taking pride in being women and mothers of men they seemed to have developed a deep sense of shame and inadequacy from which they psychologically try to escape by dressing like men and seeking courses and career that are thought to be exclusive to men. Thus we end up in graduating "educated" women who are neither men nor really women, for they cannot be men no matter how much they try and they are not ready to accept their special role as women, which the men cannot play either. The consequences of this confusion of roles is far more disastrous than many would be ready to believe, for today it had lead to the destruction of the human family in the West with all the calamities in its trail. Having destroyed the basis of its family, the West today is watching helplessly and we seem too willing to repeat the same mistake.
Most Western women would have an immediate negative reaction this passage, but I strongly encourage a careful reading because it is quite revealing. While there are arguably some “Occidentalist” stereotypes at play here (I’ve been meaning to write about Occidentalism for some time, bloody work), Bugaje touches on some of the challenges that Western women face as they try to manage society’s expectations, build careers and raise children at the same time. Fulla, with her Middle Eastern features, demure expression and modest clothing, strives to embody a Muslim female ideal: aware of her special role in society and valued for it.
Of course, ideals don’t always have a relationship to reality.
In closing (not that there is any real reason to include this), here’s a photo of some adorable girls I met in Aswan last December:
Posted by eerie at September 23, 2005 12:10 AM
Filed Under: Gender Issues
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"when considering some aspects of legal gender inequality in sharia law and how to address them in a constructive way."
In which country/ies do you think this has been best adressed? I.e.: Which Muslim-majority country has a legal code that has the most gender equality?
To some of your other points: Yes, one of the hijab's main uses is as a symbol of rejection of the West ("the West" would have to be defined here, to some people it means "everything I like" while to others it means "everything I don't like"). Also, the fact that many feminists are heavily influenced by the West discredits them to a large degree in many places. In what I read it was linked to memories of colonialism.
Related: Is "Western" an epithet/discrediting in former colonies like India/Singapore? Is it for Indian Muslims?
Posted by: Baal Shem Ra at September 23, 2005 12:52 AM
it’s difficult for me to understand why some Muslim women writers insist that the hijab worn by choice is not oppressive
I've read many debates on this subject elsewhere, and to me it hinges on whether the hijab-wearing is really by choice.
To me, feminism isn't about having women make a particular set of life choices; it’s about equipping them with the freedom to make whatever choices they believe are best for them, and the knowledge of and exposure to a wide variety of options that they will need to make informed choices.
Oddly, though as a secular Western feminist I will probably never understand the urge to wear a hijab (or all sorts of other clothing choices, either highly conservative or highly revealing), to me it’s practically just as patriarchal to tell a woman that she should not be allowed to wear a hijab as it is to force her to wear one.
Posted by: Eva Luna at September 23, 2005 12:37 PM
I've read many debates on this subject elsewhere, and to me it hinges on whether the hijab-wearing is really by choice.
Well, if you talk to young hijab-wearers in North America, many will say it's a freely made choice based on Muslim identity, etc. and not because they're pressured to veil by parents or spouses. The choice is arguably informed because they are living in a pluralistic society and are exposed to alternatives all the time. One Muslim girl at my work says that it immediately removes any sense of being "checked out" or objectified by men.
A bit of a grey area. If a woman doesn't feel oppressed, how does a person convince her that she is oppressed?
As for wearing certain kinds of clothing...well, most people dress in a way that reflects their identity and/or conforms to cultural (or subcultural) expectations.
Posted by: eerie at September 23, 2005 01:40 PM
One Muslim girl at my work says that it immediately removes any sense of being "checked out" or objectified by men.
Coincidentally - or not - that's a similar rationale to the one for why Orthodox Jewish women are religiously required to dress conservatively (though this generally takes the form of long skirts or dresses and long-sleeved shirts), and married women are required to cover their heads in public or in the presence of unrelated men (in fact, Orthodox Judaism holds that married women leaving the home with uncovered heads have provided their husbands grounds for divorce).
Ostensibly men are helpless to resist the temptation of a woman’s hair (though given my own love/hate relationship with my rather characteristically Semitic hair, this is a viewpoint I’ll never entirely understand), so it’s the woman’s responsibility to refrain from providing the temptation. Why it’s not the man’s responsibility to control his hormones, or why conservative religion tends not to acknowledge that women are also subject to sexual temptation, is probably a rant for another day.
It wouldn’t be my personal choice to cover my hair, but then there is a reason why I don’t wear bikinis that has basically nothing to do with religion; people should be allowed to decide for themselves how private they want to be with their own bodies. Some people find objectification fun; most of the time I'm not one of them.
Posted by: Eva Luna at September 23, 2005 01:56 PM
Why it’s not the man’s responsibility to control his hormones, or why conservative religion tends not to acknowledge that women are also subject to sexual temptation, is probably a rant for another day.
Yes, but even in a secular Western environment like North America, there is a strong expectation that women be sexy and that beauty is more valued than intelligence. It is this hypersexualization and perceived degradation of Western women that is noticed by Muslim women (and perhaps other orthodox/conservative types). Depending on how the woman views things, it may not be absolving men of responsibility as much as a refusal to conform to certain societal expectations about how women should dress.
Assuming the choice ultimately rests with the woman, there are pressures to conform to various cultural/subcultural expectations. Refusing to conform can result in marginalization/ostracism, but conforming to expectations that damage self-esteem can also be problematic.
Posted by: eerie at September 23, 2005 03:51 PM
I think my extended comment to you got eaten by the anti-spam thing, but that Emory Family Law site might be useful to you - law.emory.edu/IFL/
Of course, there are lots of unenforced laws promoting gender equality.
And yes, "Western" is often a convenient way to discredit but in this case I'm using the loose "Western secular liberal cultural concepts" definition.
Really not sure how much Indian Muslims identify with pan-Arab/ME anger.
Posted by: eerie at September 23, 2005 04:19 PM
Thanks for the link.
I know it's frustrating to retype what the Internet monster ate but would you tell me again which Muslim-majority country(or handful of countries) has, in your opinion, given women the best deal?
Posted by: Baal Shem Ra at September 25, 2005 01:10 AM
BSR, you might well wish to define what you mean by "best deal" and in what context. It is not really an answerable question as posed.
Posted by: lounsbury at September 26, 2005 12:38 PM
Right, my question stemmed from:" I think this point is especially important when considering some aspects of legal gender inequality in sharia law and how to address them in a constructive way."
So "best deal" would be legal gender equality. One can say that a country has laws that aren't enforced and that unenforced laws are, at best, unconsequential and at worst counter-productive. In this case, the question would be which country's system gives the greatest amount* of practical legal gender equality. If the amount of enforcement is not known to a sufficient extent, just a simple guess at which Muslim-majority country gives the most legal gender equality will be enough for me. I want to know which Muslim-majority country, according to Eerie (originally at least, feel free to answer), gives women the best deal in its legal/judicial system.
*Which need not be perfect, just the best/least worst.
Posted by: Baal_Shem_ra at September 26, 2005 12:47 PM
This is the problem, assuming that the "best deal" for women in MENA is legal equality across the board in sharia-based personal status law. The basis of the inequality in marriage and inheritance law comes from the idea that men are responsible for taking care of and protecting women (as mentioned in the Qur'an). Without having any statistics handy, my impression is that women still do not constitute a large part of the workforce and don't tend to work after marriage unless there is a real economic need. I do recall a figure somewhere about 15% of Cairene women being the primary breadwinners, but will have to verify. In the case of inheritance, perhaps there should be a provision for women who aren't directly supported by any male to get an equal share of inheritance (relative to the male).
It may also be wiser to focus on strengthening divorce laws so that (largely non-working) women do not have to deal with secret/surprise talaq divorces, secret second wives and so on. Also, sharia provisions granting women their own assets should be upheld and extended so that women who get divorced have some means to support themselves. These provisions are already in the sharia to some degree, so extending them to better protect women would not necessarily be viewed as an imposition of Western ideals.
Anyway, my point here is to try and show that with such vastly different societal expectations (very strong emphasis on family, pressure against divorce, pressure to be married, pressure on the male to provide for his family), the vague notion of legal "equality" may not make as much sense as simply ensuring that sharia-based personal status laws are equitable and enforced.
Regarding the "best deal" for women, my general view is that rural women across MENA get the worst of it and that elite women usually have a better time (though deal with similar social pressures). Unless we have some tangible benchmarks (e.g. a specific aspect of divorce law), credible statistics and realistic performance measures, it's a very hard question to answer.
Posted by: eerie at September 26, 2005 01:34 PM