Allowing girls and women to hear Barbie herself tell them that they can become whatever they want – from a doctor to an astronaut to the president of the Government – is not among the plans of some leaders of Arab and Muslim-majority countries who routinely try to avoid western influence and, in this case, the most famous doll in the West.
Barbie Existential Crisis? Yes, we are
The reaction to the blockbuster Barbie has once again highlighted the social contradictions in the Middle East, where some governments have chosen to prohibit it, while others have allowed its release to give a liberal and open image to the outside world, and to satisfy citizens who increasingly yearn for more freedom.
This is the case of Saudi Arabia and other monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in which the rulers have had to relax their iron fist before a thriving and young society that is increasingly connected to the world and better educated, as indicated by the statistics.
Saudi Arabia reopened its cinemas in 2018, after being closed for 30 years, due to the strict interpretation of Islam that began to be applied in the kingdom in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, however, cinema and entertainment represent an important economic sector.
Economic considerations, highly relevant in the case of a worldwide success such as Barbiehave had their weight when it comes to allowing their projection in some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, while in others the prevailing moral and religious values, and political pressures, have prevailed.
Hezbollah against ‘Barbie’
In Lebanon, considered the most liberal nation in the Middle East and traditionally one of the region’s cultural centers, Culture Minister Mohamed Murtada has called for banning Barbie for considering that it “promotes homosexuality” and that it goes against the family values of this nation in which Shiite Muslims, Sunnis and Maronite Christians live side by side, in addition to other minority communities.
Even though in the movie Barbie no explicit reference to homosexuality is made, the Ministry of the Interior could prohibit its screening on the grounds of “national security”, which is common in the face of any element that could generate controversy or confront the country with its contradictions and ghosts.
The Minister of Culture or the Government cannot unilaterally ban the film if it obtains the approval of the body in charge of censorship, which would have approved the screening of Barbie, according to the NGO for the study and promotion of the law, Agenda Legal, but with one condition: that the film be classified for people over 13 years of age. The NGO explains in a detailed statement that, only in the event that the censor committee recommends not screening it, the Minister of the Interior can decide whether to do so or not; but, if the film has passed the censorship, he cannot prohibit it.
The minister, close to the positions of the Shiite political groups, promoted a bill last week that punishes the “promotion” of homosexual relationships with prison terms, as reported through the social network X (Twitter). . The text contemplates penalties of up to three years in prison and fines equivalent to more than 5,000 euros for “each act that promotes perverted sexual relations against nature, explicitly or implicitly.”
It also stipulates the same penalties for those who promote “the possibility of sex change or publish information directed at minors that makes them want to change their gender or sexual orientation.”
Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries where homosexuality is not such a taboo. The famous Lebanese music group Mashrou Leila It was one of the first to advocate for the rights of the LGTBI community from the stage and its singer, Hamed Sinno, openly declared himself homosexual, which led to the band’s performances being banned in Egypt and other places.
To this day, the political and social weight and influence that the Shiites have gained in the former ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ has also made itself felt in the cultural aspect, and seems to be behind the veto of Barbie.
The organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently denounced that the violent rhetoric of the leader of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, the Shiite cleric Hassan Nasrallah, has caused a wave of online harassment and hatred against members of the LGTBI community, who usually keep a low profile in the Libano.
The powerful leader called in a speech at the end of July to kill homosexuals and deal with these people “with all means, without limits,” according to HRW.
Where can you see Barbie?
At the moment, there is no definitive decision in Lebanon and the Vox cinema chain, in which it is being screened Barbie In other countries in the region, it still has the premiere of the film in Beirut on August 31, but for people over 18 years of age, despite the fact that the genre of the film is “family”.
The same thing appears on the Vox website in Kuwait, although the government of this apparently moderate Gulf country has announced that Barbie It will not be viewed because it contains “ideas and beliefs alien to Kuwaiti society and public order,” according to the official KUNA news agency.
In the sultanate of Oman, its premiere is also scheduled for August 31, while in Qatar, the host country of the last World Cup, there is not even a date and the authorities have not ruled on it. Algeria allowed its premiere on July 21, but last week it decided to withdraw the film from movie theaters, where nearly 400,000 viewers had already been able to see it in the three weeks it was on the billboards, according to data from the EFE Agency. According to local media, the authorities withdrew the film for “attacking morality.”
In Jordan, the censorship authority has given the green light to its release at the end of the month, although there has already been criticism for its permissiveness, while in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among other Arab countries, Barbie It can already be seen in Vox multi-screen cinemas.
Although it has not been surprising that it has arrived and succeeded in Dubai (with a promotional video of a giant Barbie next to the tallest tower in the world, Burj Khalifa, located in the tourist center of the city), it has generated a certain astonishment that the film has passed the censorship filters in Saudi Arabia, considered the most conservative country in the region and, specifically, the one that least respects women’s rights.
Double standards in Saudi Arabia
“You have to keep in mind that, at this stage, Saudi Arabia is making every decision to attract tourists. The premiere and screening of Barbie can easily give the impression that Saudi Arabia is an open country. People only see that and cannot see the reality on the ground,” Lina Alhathloul, head of monitoring and promoting human rights at the Saudi NGO ALQST.
The activist says that there is “a clear contradiction and double standards” in her country. “There is a Saudi Arabia for tourists and Westerners and another for Saudis and Muslims.” She gives as an example the soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, signed in January by the Saudi club Al Nassr and who lives in the kingdom with his wife, without being married, while “if a Saudi woman has extramarital affairs she can be punished for a long time”. .
“Saudi Arabia has opened only for tourists and (foreign) investment, but not for its own people,” he adds.
You have the Barbie movie in theaters, but at the same time Saudi women are being tried as terrorists
In Riyadh “you have the film of Barbie in theaters, but at the same time Saudi women are being tried as terrorists for not wearing the abaya black (tunic that covers the whole body and is mandatory in public)”, denounces Alhathloul, referring to the case of two sisters, Foz and Manahel al Oteibi, persecuted for not wearing that garment and for tweeting about women’s rights. Foz has managed to flee the country while Manahel is being tried by a special court that handles terrorism and national security cases.
Although the Saudi authorities have allowed women to drive or apply for their own passport without the consent of a guardian (father, brother, husband, son), “the male guardianship system continues to negatively affect all areas of women’s lives.” women and considerably restricts their freedoms,” according to Alhathloul.
Moreover, “disobeying the guardian remains a crime, which means that these new freedoms have no legal effect if the male guardian opposes” the woman exercising them. The activist details that a woman can be subjected to a kind of house arrest if she disobeys her guardian, if she leaves her house or if she has extramarital affairs, among other “crimes” defined by Saudi law. .
The few freedoms that the authorities have granted to Saudi women in recent years are part of the reforms promoted by the crown prince, Mohamed Bin Salmán, who seeks to modernize the image of the kingdom and, above all, its economy so that it does not depend exclusively on of the oil. But women who demand full rights and, furthermore, exercise their freedom of expression, continue to be persecuted and several are behind bars.
According to Alhathloul, in the past months at least four women have been tried and sentenced to long prison terms “for their peaceful activity on social media,” while other women’s rights defenders, such as her sister Loujain, who was in jail for almost three yearsSamar Badawi and Nassima al Sadah continue to suffer “harsh restrictions” after their release, first of all, the ban on leaving the country.
The ALQST activist says the Saudi authorities apply “collective punishment” and help create a “climate of fear” around feminists: “Families can also be banned from traveling (…) so they don’t they talk about their imprisoned relatives; the trials take place behind closed doors and, furthermore, they are courts (in charge) of terrorism and there is no information in the judicial records”. For all these reasons, “it is difficult to know how many women are in prison” in Saudi Arabia.
Apart from Saudi NGOs, based outside the country, international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been denouncing the persecution of women who advocate for their rights as well as Saudi men who express their opinion through peaceful means, through social networks or professional journalists.