Don’t be quick to celebrate the hijab-wearing Barbie


Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad holds a Barbie doll made in her likeness as she attends the 2017 Glamour Women of the Year Awards at the Kings Theater in New York PHOTO/Reuters/Andrew Kelly

It is no secret that Mattel Inc.’s Barbie doll has done well, not only in the US but also globally. The franchise contributed nearly 20 percent to Mattel’s worldwide gross sales in the last quarter and was ranked as one of the top-selling US toy properties.

However, the company has also been incessantly criticised for its portrayal of unrealistic beauty standards – its white, ultra-thin, blue-eyed, lusciously-haired, ample-bosomed Barbie, it is argued, belies the realities of women who must eat, labour, provide care to children and the elderly, and survive intimate and public violence.

Mattel has often dismissed such criticisms. Only a couple of years ago, Mattel’s lead designer for Barbie said that mothers are to blame for girls’ body issues, and not dolls.

However, in recent years, the company has launched multiple new product lines, from career, petite, and curvy Barbie dolls to dolls that are non-white, to appease its critics. 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. Just recently, a schoolteacher in Virginia ripped off a young girl’s hijab, and a teacher in Tennessee posted a video of a student’s hijab being removed, with captions “pretty hair” and “lol all that hair cover up”.

The hijab-wearing Barbie or the D&G abayas are classic instances of racial capitalism

There is no doubt that this doll offers representational possibilities for young girls (and even women) who often do not see their likeness in dominant textual and visual cultures. And the doll, being black, also disrupts the dominance of South Asian/Arab/Brown Muslims in the context of the US.

However, let’s not be too hasty in celebrating such moves by for-profit corporations.

What Mattel and companies like DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Dolce & Gabbana, and H&M, which have launched hijab, abaya and other products aimed at Muslim women, are selling is an imagined feeling of inclusivity to Muslim girls who often do not experience it in their daily lives.

This form of tokenistic inclusion often does more harm than good. It distracts us from engaging in deeper and tougher conversations about meaningful social reform to create a more inclusive society. Instead, it commodifies Islam and sees Muslims as yet another target market. Critical legal theorist Nancy Leong reads such forms of commodification of otherness as “racial capitalism” – “the process of deriving social and economic value from racial identity”.

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(Thanks to reader)

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