Teffilin Barbie and Burqa Barbie: What does it mean to dress dolls?
Barbie was created in 1959 by Jewish business woman Ruth Handler. She was an Amazonian creation: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, big-busted American beauty. She loved to drive pink convertibles; her wardrobe and shape-shifting abilities were astonishing. By the 80s, she was highly multicultural and had an endless variety of career paths open to her, from model to mad professor. Nothing is off-limits to ever trail-blazing Barbie, not even tefillin or a burqa.
Jen Taylor Friedman, credited as the first recorded soferet (female Torah scribe), outfitted Barbie in a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) in 2006. Images of the so-called Tefillin Barbie ran wild: Jewish women are not obliged to wear tefillin or a tallit according to Jewish law. To see this icon of femininity sporting such quintessentially masculine items as her latest accessories was jarring. What career path was not open to Barbie? She could be a Rabbi, a Jewish scholar, or a very devout Jewish woman challenging women’s traditional roles. The JWA features Tefillin Barbie in “Go and Learn,” with articles designed to inform readers and inspire discussion, while Jen Taylor Freidman herself wrote a post about Tefillin Barbie for this blog.
In 2009, Barbie received another article of clothing: a burqa. A burqa is an all-enveloping outer garment worn by some Muslim women, leaving a small opening for the eyes that is covered with mesh netting. In American and European media, burqa-clad women are often depicted as victims of Islamic extremism, hidden from sight by patriarchal traditions. Burqas are banned in many public spheres such as universities in Turkey, Tunisia and Syria. In France, the burqa has been banned from public schools since 2004, and on July 13, 2010, the French National Assembly approved a bill banning burqas and niqabs. France’s immigration minister, Eric Besson, has described the burqa as “a walking coffin,” while France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, decried the burqa as “a sign of debasement.”
On November 20, 2009, 500 Burqa Barbies made their debut in a charity auction connected with Sotheby’s for Save the Children. The event was held at the Salone dei Cinquecento in Florence, Italy. Burqa Barbie was created by Italian designer Eliana Lorena, with official support from Mattel, the company that owns Barbie. Barbara Kay’s article about Burqa Barbie quotes a Barbie collector at the exhibit as saying: "Bring it on, Burka Barbie ... I think this is really important for girls. Wherever they are from, they should have the opportunity to play with a Barbie that they feel represents them."
The backlash was inevitable: writers across the internet wondered, sometimes angrily, how could Mattel support a doll that embodied the oppression of women? Others, such as Sadie Stein of jezebel.com, wrote: “A non-Muslim dressing a non-Muslim doll in a burka trivializes it and reduces it to a costume as surely as Barbie's Mackies and bikinis and doctors' coats. Also, the burka in question is scaled strangely - not to mention lime green and vermillion.”
In one possible comparison, Burqa Barbie is the photographic negative of Tefillin Barbie: wherever Tefillin Barbie represents feminism, empowerment and progress, Burqa Barbie does not. Yet beyond their respective sartorial statements, they are one and the same: popular dolls for girls who represent what women can look like, what they can do for a living, and how they are impacted by religion and culture. Each one is passively dressed, by an artist, by a society, by a corporation, or by a little girl. They do not dress themselves, and yet, they can be models for how little girls should dress themselves when they too reach Barbie’s stature and proportions. Barbie represents a superficial view of women’s possibilities, a role in which she, at the very least, can inspire thoughtful discussion.
What do you think of Burqa Barbie’s portrayal in religious women’s clothing, whereas Tefillin Barbie is dressed in a religious man’s attire?