After the film “Barbie” was banned in some Arab countries, it divided audiences in the conservative Gulf.
In the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – where women were not allowed to drive or visit cinemas until 2018 – fans in pink versions of the abaya, the traditional all-encompassing robe, lined up to see the hit film.
But not everyone is enjoying the celebration of women's empowerment in a region where attitudes toward women's empowerment are slow to change.
A manipulated photo showing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed in pink robes was shared widely on social media, and a popular Bahraini preacher railed against what he saw as the film's progressive agenda.
Bahrain is one of the Gulf monarchies that features “Barbie”, which is banned in Kuwait and has not been released in Qatar or Oman. In the wider Middle East, it is also banned in Algeria and Lebanon.
“We never thought that a film like this would be shown in the Gulf States,” Wadima Al-Amiri, an 18-year-old Emirati woman, told AFP at a packed cinema in Dubai where they were offering color-matched pink popcorn to moviegoers.
Feminist filmmaker Greta Gerwig's tongue-in-cheek film doesn't contain any explicit LGBTQ references, but subtly touches on themes of diversity and inclusion and features a trans actor.
In Dubai, which bills itself as the cosmopolitan center of the Gulf, cinemas are adorned with memorabilia and photo booths shaped like doll boxes.
Mounira, a 30-year-old Saudi Arabian, accompanied her three daughters dressed in pink to a theater in Dubai.
“If the film contains principles or concepts that are contrary to what we believe in, it should not be shown in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries,” she told AFP.
“But we came to give the film a chance.”
“Challenges to Manhood”
Social media was gripped by the excitement. A video of a giant, digitally rendered Barbie next to the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, has been shared by thousands.
The strengthening of the role of women is already addressed in the early stages of the film. The various barbies include a president, a diplomat, and Supreme Court justices, duties traditionally vested in men.
As the story unfolds, the patriarchy threatens to infect “Barbieland” – a matriarchal utopia in which men lounge on the beach while women fill prestigious roles.
The film caused quite a stir in Saudi Arabia, where activists still face charges for social media posts that violate strict dress codes and where homosexuality is banned, as in much of the region.
Restaurants in the capital, Riyadh, have added Barbie-inspired dishes and drinks to their menus. But not everyone is impressed.
Hanan Al-Amoudi, a Saudi mother of four who is waiting to watch another film in Dubai, said she has no interest in seeing Barbie.
“I support freedom and openness, but regarding ‘Barbie' I've heard that it challenges masculinity,” she said, wearing a black abaya and niqab face shield.
“For a man to resemble a woman by wearing makeup and dressing[female]… I don't like that,” she said, referring to Ryan Gosling's flamboyant Ken.
“White and Superficial”
In Bahrain, “Barbie” has drawn the ire of Islamic preacher Hassan Al-Husseini, who is being followed by millions on social media and calling for a ban.
In an Instagram post, he criticized the film for “rebelling against the idea of marriage and motherhood” and for showing men “without masculinity” or portraying them as “monsters.”
Similar objections were raised in Kuwait, which blocked the film to “protect public ethics and social traditions”.
Kuwait this month became the only Arab Gulf country to ban Australian horror film Talk to Me, which stars a trans actor but makes no mention of LGBTQ issues.
However, Kuwaitis have still managed to see “Barbie” via piracy websites or even by driving across the border into Saudi Arabia.
Kuwaiti journalist Sheikha Al-Bahaweed streamed it online but was disappointed because she felt it wasn't feminist or inclusive enough.
“It showed white, colonial and shallow feminism,” she said.
“Feminism is never based on replacing a patriarchal system with a matriarchal one, but… it is based on equality, justice and equal opportunity.”
But for Reefan al-Amoudi, an 18-year-old from Saudi Arabia, “Barbie” takes the feminist agenda too far.
“It's nice for a woman to work and be self-employed,” she said at a cinema in Dubai.
“But her body is not like a man's. She can do everything like a man, but within limits.”
(Except for the headline, this article was not edited by NDTV staff and is published via a syndicated feed.)