|Is so much ado about a Barbie doll warranted?|
There’s a hard-hitting op-ed in al Jazeera criticizing a move one of the United States’ largest toymakers has made to produce a hijab-wearing Barbie. On the face of it, this action is a long-overdue one in recognition that the world’s population is nearly a quarter Islamic. So yes, any move to make Barbie more “representative” of the countries Mattel sells this toy should include one who is appropriately dressed:
Earlier this month, it launched its first Barbie in hijab. Designed after Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, this doll is part of its “Sheroes” series. Mattel portrays this doll as serving as an “inspiration for countless little girls who never saw themselves represented in sports and culture”. Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike welcomed the doll as a sign of inclusion and diversity. In the words of Miley Cyrus, “Yay Barbie! One step closer to Equality! We HAVE to normalize diversity!”
Given the current context of large-scale demonisation of Muslims through institutional policies such as the “Muslim ban” and the dismantling of DACA, a Barbie in hijab (a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion) appears to be a welcome respite. According to Pew Research Center, hate crimes against Muslims in the US have surpassed the 2001 level.
The author, Shenila-Khoja-Moolji, expresses several reservations about this move one would generally associate with an anti-capitalist perspective. First and foremost, it is an act of commercial exploitation of culture. Second, the design of this item has not been undertaken by groups of Muslim women presumably more aware of the intertwined nuances of gender and culture. (Rather, it was modeled after an idealized [read: more “active”] woman.) Third, Mattel does not really do anything about denigration of Islam in an age of xenophobia:
The assimilation of articles representing Muslim identity or religious life by for-profit corporations is, then, just a marketing/re-branding strategy, not a move informed by social justice concerns. It does little to disrupt racial hierarchies that undergird discrimination of Muslims in the first place. Significantly, it also stabilises a particular notion of Muslim womanhood. When influential organizations select the hijab as representative of Muslim women, those who do not don the hijab find themselves on the defensive about their authenticity as Muslims. They come out all guns blazing at the hijab, delegitimising women who actually choose to wear it for multiple reasons. Such moves then create fissures within Muslim women as well.
Rather than taking on the mantle of providing inspiration to Muslim girls, perhaps organisations such as Mattel should engage more Muslim women in their creative and production processes. Perhaps such engagements will enable them to not only understand the diversity of Muslim women globally, but also to provide much-needed opportunities to Muslim women to thrive economically and socially.
On the first point, I actually agree that it’s a product borne of marketing spin. However, I do not see anything necessarily “wrong” with such a commercial move. If legitimization and mainstreaming are partly achieved by commercialization, then it actually helps the cause. Unless you’re a dyed-in-wool anti-capitalist, there is nothing essentially sinister here. On the second point, yes, Mattel could have improved its products’ claims to authenticity if it had consulted more widely with Muslim women about the doll’s presentation (and probably improved its commercial prospects).
On the third point, however, I disagree. Mattel is a for-profit enterprise, not a social enterprise. As such, “changing the world” is not its purpose by resolving the prejudices wrought by the current wave of Islamophobia. It suffices to recognize a well-intentioned move to counter such prejudicial sentiments, which Mattel is actually doing here. So, overall, it’s a laudable action, though it could have been improved by more inclusiveness during the design process.
Given Islam’s ethnic diversity as a globe-spanning religion, it should also be noted that blue-eyed, blonde-haired women are also followers of the faith.