Burqa Barbie Backlash

A recent exhibition in Italy that includes several burqa-wearing Barbies has unleashed, of course, a wave of scandal, much of which is precisely the sort of ill-informed knee-jerk backlash about Islamic women that makes my skin crawl. Typical is Barbara Kay’s assertion, in the National Post, that these are “travesties of multiculturalism” that “make a mockery of disempowered women who have been stripped of all human dignity, women with no means of challenging their forced depersonalization.” OK, so fierce rhetoric. But let’s unpack a little, shall we?

The Barbies in question are part of a 500-piece exhibition of Eliana Lorena-dressed dolls at the Salone del Cinquecento in Florence, backed by Mattel. These one-off dolls will be displayed, then auctioned off by Sotheby’s on behalf of a charity called Rewrite the Future, which benefits children affected by war. In addition to a few fluorescent burqa-clad Barbies, we find geisha Barbies, shalwar khameez Barbies, chador Barbies, and what can only be described as slutty co-ed Barbies. In short, the collection runs the gamut of cheesy feminine stereotypes, by region. So far, I’d say we’re pretty firmly on standard Barbie territory.

Kay writes plaintively that, with this exhibition, “Barbie has shed her cultural innocence.” It seems to me a thundering irony to accuse the burqa of having suddenly rendered Barbie anti-feminist, given that the doll is based on a German hooker called Lilli and has a—shall we say—fraught history as a model for women’s self-images.

Furthermore, Kay critiques the exhibition for trivializing the plight of burqa-wearing women, a stance that I can certainly get behind. However, while she is sympathetic to those hidden women, I for one fail to see how casting any representation of them as ineluctably anti-feminist is going to help them gain exposure, nevermind political agency. If anything, the exhibition has forced the issue into the limelight, so that it becomes something we can mull over and discuss.

Enforced veiling—which is unquestionably sexist, offensive and demeaning—receives a lot of airtime as yet another shocking manifestation of the terrible ways that brown men treat brown women, to paraphrase Spivak. Veiling practices are systematically policed in Saudi Arabia, Iran and in Taliban-controlled territories, but elsewhere are mostly individual women’s choices, albeit ones framed by cultural habits and expectations—skipping the veil can invite unwelcome attention or even violence in places where most women cover. However, such discourses have been used to justify an ironic reversal in the West, where women in some countries (I’m lookin’ at you, Sarkozy) have been forbidden from voluntarily donning hijab or, more famously, the burqini to go about their business.

To me, this burqa Barbie “scandal” is indicative of a broader problem with how we talk about Muslim women in the West, where we start from the assumption that their cultural differences are a problem to be solved. Ultimately, I’m inclined to agree with Sadie’s Stein’s post on Jezebel, where she reminds that, “it’s a single doll. It’s not mass-produced. It’s presumably not intended for any children, Muslim or otherwise, and doesn’t seem to involve any more social commentary than Malibu Barbie does on Proposition 8.”

- Emily Raine

10 thoughts on “Burqa Barbie Backlash

  1. Interesting piece Emily. I also agree with Sadie Stein’s post, these are not mass produced dolls – they’re art pieces and should not be spoken about as if they’re actually meant to be played with by little Jane in suburban Toronto…

    Looking forward to your glossary in 10!

  2. “I for one fail to see how casting any representation of them as ineluctably anti-feminist is going to help them gain exposure, nevermind political agency.” Agreed.

    I’ve never seen the benefit of trading one rigid system for another. It’s the self-righteous tone of western discussion that bothers me, as though one party could judge what’s best for all… and as if, in that judgement, we are not risking a whole new oppression.
    More choice, not less.

  3. She also calls misnames all of the garments themselves–calls a burka a chador and the like. We should send her a copy of the glossary! That, ladies, is how you make enemies out of people with a larger readership than you.

  4. This is an amazingly complex topic, one that I don’t think can be wrapped up in a pretty package with a bow. The discussion should always be kept alive, if not for the sake of understanding but for the sheer fact it’s fascinating.

    The fact that Barbie was used, an icon already fraught with emotion, is a perfect vehicle for displaying multicultural garb. Why? Because it gives the chance for these different takes on multiculturalism to fail. These are not supposed to be right. Only would they be right if they were made by the woman who wears a burka. What SHE chooses to clad HER Barbie in is the only thing that could ever approach “correct.”

    My mind turns to European artists like Ingres an Orientalism. Time to crack open Edward Said’s now classic text “Orientalism.”

  5. This is an amazingly complex topic, one that I don’t think can be wrapped up in a pretty package with a bow. The discussion should always be kept alive, if not for the sake of understanding but for the sheer fact it’s fascinating.

    The fact that Barbie was used, an icon already fraught with emotion, is a perfect vehicle for displaying multicultural garb. Why? Because it gives the chance for these different takes on multiculturalism to fail. These are not supposed to be right. Only would they be right if they were made by the woman who wears a burka. What SHE chooses to clad HER Barbie in is the only thing that could ever approach “correct.”

    My mind turns to European artists like Ingres and Orientalism. Time to crack open Edward Said’s now classic text “Orientalism.”

  6. Oh lord, Barbara Kay. I’m sorry, that woman is a sensationalist and an idiot. I wish she didn’t have a venue to spout her dreck because all she does is lower the level of debate. She was on CBC radio recently discussing feminism and the state of women’s studies programs and her assured, self-satisfed ignorance just made my blood boil.

  7. When I first read the blog post title I thought this piece would be about how Kay, while seeming to stand up for women forced to wear burkas, came off as a racist twat. And if you read the comments section for the article that Kay wrote you’ll find more racist twats.

    Barbara Kay and Rosie DiManno apparently went to the same journalism school.

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