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Rock-a-Bye-Bye Baby: Saudis to Ban Lifelike Dolls

Even stuffed animals that look too much like the real thing are out on the grounds that they violate Islamic law. Shoppers are shocked.

February 15, 2004|Adnan Malik | Associated Press Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Blue-eyed Baby Annabell is too real for Saudis.

The life-size doll babbles, gurgles and giggles like a baby. She sucks on a pacifier and, after a meal, she burps, yawns and falls asleep. When awakened by a loud noise, she begins to cry.

But the human characteristics that make Annabell a top seller in Saudi Arabia are part of the reason that she will soon be banished.

In December, the Interior Ministry announced a ban on importing dolls and stuffed animals, and gave merchants three months to get rid of them. The ban includes toys that are representations of holy persons or nudes, are shaped like dolls or animals, or carry "mottos of non-Muslim nations such as the cross, Star of David, Buddha or anything similar."

Strict interpretations of Islamic law ban representations of living beings and any exposure of the female figure. Baby Annabell, which sells for about $87 and is made in China for Western markets, violates those standards.

Barbie dolls have already been outlawed for more than a decade. Religious police, called muttawa, often take their anti-Barbie campaign to the shops, confiscating dolls and imposing fines on those who sell them for $50 or more on the black market.

But a baby doll?

It's all politics, some Saudis say -- a balancing act by a government anxious to defend its Islamic credentials while waging war on Muslim militants in the kingdom.

Shoppers and merchants alike are dumbfounded by the latest order.

"This is outrageous," said Amal, 28, who was shopping with her 8-year-old daughter, Hessa. "Like any other girl, I grew up playing with dolls and I just can't understand the reason behind such a move."

Khalid, 19, was looking for a gift for his 7-year-old sister.

"How much damage can these lifeless items do to the people, compared to the damage the terrorists have done in my country? Not much. In fact, none at all," he said.

Amal and Khalid asked not to be further identified lest they attract unwanted attention from conservative authorities.

Dolls and stuffed animals notwithstanding, there have been steps toward moderation and reform. The government recently ordered mosque preachers to tone down their rhetoric, amended religious textbooks and promised the kingdom's first local elections.

It cracked down on militants after suicide bombings last year killed 52 people in the capital, Riyadh. Besides arresting hundreds of suspected militants and their supporters, Saudi authorities launched a war of words on extremist thought, enlisting prominent clerics to emphasize the peaceful nature of true Islam.

Late last year, three jailed radical Muslim clerics were shown on state-run TV recanting calls to violence.

Abdulghani Abdullah, 34, a Saudi businessman who watched the broadcast, said that had it come earlier, "it would have probably saved us all this destruction. But better late than never."

The Saudi royal family, keeper of Islam's holiest sites, derives its legitimacy from its embrace of Wahhabism, a particularly austere brand of Islam.

That has meant ceding control over social regulations to Wahhabi clerics and giving a free rein to the religious police.

In May, Jamal Khashoggi lost his job as editor of the Al Watan daily because of articles that suggested that Islamic fanaticism, long tolerated by the ruling family, led to terrorism. In March 2002, Mohammed Mokhtar al-Fal, chief editor of the newspaper Al-Madina, was fired on Interior Ministry orders after publishing a poem attacking the kingdom's Islamic judges.

One analyst suggested that the Saudi leadership broaden its source of legitimacy by empowering moderates.

"In order to save the country and establish peace and tranquillity with the rest of the world, we have to come up with mechanisms to deal with extremism and find a short-term and long-term solution to this phenomenon," said Ahmed Turkistani, a communications professor at Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University.

"We have to move with time, and it is important to see whether some of the early Islamic teachings fit in with today's modern Saudi society," he said while attending a forum on religious extremism in Mecca, Islam's holiest city.

Meanwhile, those dolls and other banned toys are flying off the shelves.

"Mom! Can I take Baby Annabell home?" asked Hessa, cradling the burping doll in her arms.

"Sure you can, my darling," her mother replied, drawing smiles from Hessa and the shopkeeper.

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