The Islamic Garden
Barbie Converts to Islam
The Barbie Doll has always been a controversial figure since she made her debut on the American scene in 1959. She was designed after Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Mattel Toys, took a trip to Europe and stumbled upon the German "Lili Doll," a busty blonde who wore lingerie and was not intended as a toy for young children but as a trinket to be sold to men in bars and other places of ill repute. Inspired, Handler bought the rights to this doll and eventually came up with the Barbie Doll concept, the all-American girl who would have it all: money, looks, career, a fancy sports car and a handsome boyfriend. In addition, it was also the first children's toy in the history of the country to have been created with an alluring woman's figure.
In the years since the sale of the first Barbie Doll, many concerns have been raised about the message it conveys to young girls about their own bodies and sense of self-worth. As the US has become more diverse and more conscious about issues related to gender stereotyping, race and weight, we have seen some attempts by Mattel to turn Barbie into a more realistic representation of the all-American woman. For example, there are now Latina and African-American Barbies as well as Barbies who represent various other ethnic groups. And now the latest change: Barbie will get a more realistic figure which includes a larger stomach and a reduced bust size after harsh criticisms from feminist organizations and others who object to the traditional Barbie's exaggerated curves.
As a child, I never had a Barbie doll and I have never considered buying one for my daughter who is three years old. In making this decision, I have not taken into account the legacy of Barbie's pornographic origins (which I did not know about until recently), or even the controversy surrounding her trim figure. It is just something that I have not thought about...until recently, that is, when my parents bought a Barbie as a gift for my daughter: not just any Barbie but a Princess Barbie, complete with a pink sequinned ballroom gown, shiny jewelry and all the trimmings. Needless to say, my daughter loved it.
Within seconds, however, the questions started about the doll's low-cut, sleeveless dress. Why is her chest showing? Why aren't her arms covered? As Muslims, we have always taken care to teach our children about modest dress for men and women both and I could see the wheels spinning in my daughter's head as she began to suspect that this doll did not reflect a proper image of Islamic modesty. She herself does not wear short sleeves so I was not surprised at all to see her concerned about her new doll. Not exactly sure how to react without over-reacting, my son saved me with a question of his own: Where's this doll's hijab? (The term hijab refers to the Islamic dress of Muslim women and is often used in reference to the headscarf in paricular. You may read more about it here.)
And that's what gave me the idea to transform Barbie into a Muslim woman. Within minutes, I found a piece of material which I sewed in order to make a long, free-flowing hijab which served to conceal the doll's hair as well as her shapely figure. Her chest was no longer exposed and suddenly Barbie had a completely different look. My daughter really loved this and said we should name this new Muslima Fatimah, the name of her best friend. She then took Fatimah and began playing with her, taking care to keep her hijab in place as she introduced her new friend to her other toys and dolls.
I have always thought of Barbie as just another doll and I was not at all offended by this gift from my parents which was a kind gesture on their part. At the same time, I think it is important to make sure that a girl's dolls reflect the values which are being taught in the home because these dolls are used in intense pretend-play which include role playing: this Barbie doll, for example, is likely to be a mother, a sister and a peer to my daughter as she thinks up different games to play with her and it gives her a sense of security to have a doll which can be all of these things without having to reconcile the unsettling fact that her cleavage is exposed.