Thursday, December 10, 2009

Burqa Barbie  

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In Italy, you can find "Burqa Barbies" on display at an exhibit, being auctioned off as a fundraiser for the Italian branch of Save the Children.

Barbara Kay of the National Post, who asked, "Why is the world's favorite fashion doll wearing a symbol of oppression?" wrote:

I have seen some pretty tawdry advertising campaigns in my time, but I must say this one takes the cake for insensitivity. What's next in dolls that are "important for girls" to play with? "Illiterate Barbie"? "Forced-Marriage Barbie"?

I understand Kay's concerns, but I have a problem with this article. By saying the above statement, Kay is equating the burqa with women being denied access to education and being forced into marriage. However, burqa Barbie does not come with a scroll inscribed with the Taliban edicts; there are no indications that this burqa-wearing Barbie is oppressed in any way, other than, as Kay observes, the cloth covering her from head-to-toe.

In the article, "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?" Lila Abu-Lughod points out that the Taliban did not invent the burqa. She explains, "The Pashtun are one of the several ethnic groups in Afhganistan and the burqa was one of many forms of covering in the subcontinent and Southwest Asia that has developed as a convention for symbolizing women's modesty or respectability." Abu-Lughod also cites anthropologist Hanna Papanek, who in 1982 wrote that many saw the burqa as liberating because it allowed women to move about in public, while still respecting the moral requirements of separating women from unrelated men.

When the Taliban was overthrown, though some women did discard their burqas (those who felt safe enough to do so), many continued to wear it. As Westerners who have been taught by the media and by people such as Kay that the burqa is an oppressive and horrific invention, it's hard for us to understand why a woman would choose to wear one. But even with the Taliban gone, why would a woman suddenly choose to discard what she might see as a symbol of respectability and liberation?

My bottom line: the reasoning behind a woman's choice to wear a burqa is complex. We cannot reduce the burqa to a mere "symbol of oppression." To many, it is a marker of their culture. And as people who didn't grow up in Middle Eastern culture, it is impossible for us to fully understand it.

What next?

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