x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tall, blonde and 'evil': Barbie bedevils Iran

Iran's religious hardliners are warning against western dolls, seen as promoting "moral corruption and consumerism."

An Iranian family buy their son Dara and Sara National Iranian dolls.
An Iranian family buy their son Dara and Sara National Iranian dolls.

TEHRAN // The West has a new agent in Iran. She is blonde and curvaceous and her name is Barbie. Having been smuggled into the country, the popular doll, along with her erstwhile partner, Ken, and a motley crew of western action figures, such as Superman, Batman and the boy wizard, Harry Potter, have become hugely popular in Iran, much to the concern of the country's religious hardliners. Earlier this month, Ayatollah Reza Ostedi used a Friday sermon to warn his congregation in the holy town of Qom of the dangers of allowing Barbie and her friends into their homes. They would corrupt children, he warned, singling out Barbie, with her uncovered hair and bare shoulders, as encouraging "bad hijab" habits. "Barbie is an emissary of nudity and promotes moral corruption and consumerism of the West," the hardline Kahyan newspaper wrote in an editorial last year. "It is produced with the evil intention of destroying the identity of freedom-seeking nations." In April, Ayataollha Dorri Najafabadi, the prosecutor general, wrote to the vice president urging him to take measures to protect children from the "corruptive influence" of western toys, computer games and films. No measures have been announced as yet and it is not clear if any would be effective against Barbie. An earlier attempt to challenge the hold Barbie and other western toys appears to be failing. Six years ago, Iran introduced its own Iranian dolls, Sara, and her male companion, Dara. But they have been unable to dislodge Barbie and Ken as Iranian children's favourites. "I like Sara and Dara but I don't have any myself. I have many Barbie dolls though. My auntie always gives me Barbie dolls," said Paniz, eight. "No way, they are not cute," said her friend, Fatemeh, 11, when asked if she would like to get Sara and Dara dolls as a birthday present. "They just don't look good. I like Barbie dolls. They are so pretty and they have all these pretty outfits and accessories. I have a few Barbies and I love them," she said. The Sara and Dara dolls are not immediately endearing. The are heavy with inflexible limbs and are about 40cm tall making them unwieldy for small children. The dolls come with about 30 outfits that are representative of Iranian ethnic groups. A football kit for Dara, story books and tapes and some other accessories are available, including a white headscarf that is supplied with every Sara doll. Few shops sell the dolls whereas Barbie, Superman and Batman are found in nearly every toy shop, and compared with their illegally imported rivals, Sara and Dara dolls can be expensive. The price for a Sara doll starts from 18,000 rials (Dh7) compared with a Barbie doll that can cost between 12,000 rials to 25,000 rials. Some toy shops say they stopped stocking the dolls because of their high price and due to the lack of demand. The dolls were first introduced by the Institute for Intellectual Development and Young Adults. The government agency affiliated to the ministry of education had been commissioned by the country's Supreme Cultural Revolution Council to design and produce the dolls to counter the "western cultural onslaught". The dolls were based on characters of the brother and sister that dominated Iranian primary school textbooks for decades. "They are expensive and families prefer imported dolls given the dissatisfactory quality of Sara and Dara dolls and lack of attractive related accessories," said Ali Bouzari, a children's books illustrator. "I have never seen any child playing with them." "If the idea of promoting the dolls was for them to replace Barbie and Ken dolls, it has not been successful. Barbie and Ken are representatives of modern American girls and boys. Sara and Dara, the way they are presented, don't play the same role in our society," Mr Bouzari said. "All the dolls have identical faces and only their clothes change. Iranian children, even in remotest places, don't usually dress in ethnic costumes that come with the dolls. Unless a child is from the same ethnic background and has been exposed to related traditions, she or he will find it too difficult to identify with them," he said. However, Mr Bouzari said the idea of a nationally inspired doll was good. "But being nationally inspired is different from being traditional. We must first address the question of whether such traditions still play an active role in the life of the children today," he said. Parents' attitudes also seem to confirm that the Iranian duo will not have an impact on the popularity of the blonde bombshell. Hamid Kheirollahi, 37, said he had not bought the dolls for his three-year-old daughter. "They are not attractive to kids. I've seen the dolls in shop windows and in TV commercials. They are too big for younger kids. "It will be impossible to force something called a national doll on the society to promote certain values. This is like wiping the question instead of providing an answer. I don't even think that [Barbie and Ken] dolls can corrupt kid's morality," he said. Mohammad Ahwazi, a lawyer with a five-year-old daughter who loves Barbie, said toys that conform to children's national and religious identity can be popular. "I am not against Barbie dolls, though. We live in a world of information and communication. Sooner or later every child will be exposed to all sorts of ideas and things. "Maybe it's even better if my child acquires the knowledge of what is different through playing with these dolls. This can prevent a cultural shock that may come later if she has been kept in the dark," he said. msinaiee@thenational.ae