Barbie in hijab: Glorification of oppression, or empowerment?

Imagine how this little doll can inspire millions of young girls in Muslim families to realize their utmost potential, regardless of what they look like or how they choose to dress.

Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad poses with a barbie doll made in her likeness (photo credit: REUTERS)
Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad poses with a barbie doll made in her likeness
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In mid-November, Mattel’s newest Barbie doll was released, as part of the “Barbie Sheroes” collection. The new, pretty Barbie is dressed in a fencer’s suit, has brown skin and wears a hijab.
She was designed this way to celebrate the accomplishments of Ibtihaj Muhammad, the 31-year-old American Olympic fencer.
I was very excited to see the new Barbie, because it simply acknowledges women who do not conform to the strict standards of so-called “Western” beauty.
Imagine how this little doll can inspire millions of young girls in Muslim families, not only in the US but all over the world, to realize their utmost potential when they grow up, regardless of what they look like or the way they choose to dress.
But Maureen Callahan, a columnist at The New York Post, a woman and an American, just like Ibtihaj, was offended by the new Barbie. She claimed that the new Barbie represents oppression, not empowerment. And unfortunately, she was not the only one to launch such an attack.
“Meet Mattel’s latest doll: dressed conservatively, covered head to toe with only her hands and face visible. The fabric she wears is extra-thick, so there’s no chance of seeing skin. This Barbie wears no adornments. She also wears a hijab,” Callahan wrote, in a judgmental tone that does not only imply complete ignorance regarding modest dress in Islam, but also reflects insensitivity to cultural differences.
Neither Barbie nor Ibtihaj is covered from head to toe. The doll is wearing a fencer’s suit, of the type that anyone, man or woman, would wear for fencing.
She only chose to don a hijab to cover her hair in respect to her cultural and religious background. That is something to respect, not disdain. Why would Callahan need to see Ibtihaj’s skin to give her a liberal stamp of approval? The hijab, this little piece of cloth, did not prevent Ibtihaj from being a successful, independent woman and indeed a famous athlete. No more does it prevent Muslim women all over the world realizing their potential. Look at the recently formed ministerial cabinet in the United Arab Emirates, for instance. Ninety percent of the amazing young women, in their twenties and thirties, who were appointed ministers for this term are wearing hijabs. Yet they also have stunning professional resumes, including PhDs from top universities around the world.
Covering oneself from head to toe is a particular form of dress, known as burqa or niqab, which only extremist Islamist women wear; and they are a minority. The niqab is already rejected among mainstream Muslims. In Egypt, for example, where the majority of Muslim women wearing the hijab, there are court rulings – motivated by organized citizen campaigns – preventing the wearing of niqabs in public places, schools and streets, because they hide a woman’s identity.
But what was still more disturbing to read in Callahan’s article was that rather than celebrating the accomplishment of Ibtihaj as an American woman, Callahan claimed Ibtihaj was not raised in a way that makes her fit to be an American.
This despite the fact that Ibtihaj was born in New Jersey, studied at American schools, has an American family and friends and spent her whole life as an American citizen! It is especially ironic considering the lack of a clear-cut criteria for being “fit to be an American.” What does that even mean? I do believe that what really matters is to be a true human being, which is defined by the value we contribute to the world around us, not our clothes.
The best thing about the US, based on my experience studying and working there for years, is the lack of demographic homogeneity. The US is a rare open society where human beings from all walks of life coexist beautifully.
One of my most vivid memories of the US involves a Saturday morning in 2007, when on my very first visit to Boston, a hijab-wearing woman stopped a Jewish family outside a synagogue and asked them for directions. As someone coming from the ever-conflicted Middle East, this was an epic scene for me, which highlighted the true spirit of being an American and a human.
I hope Maureen Callahan and all those who think like her understand that the hijab is only a piece of cloth that some women choose to wear to cover their hair, but not their minds. A woman can still learn, develop, work, travel and be beneficial to her society while wearing a hijab, a Hindu sari, an Indian hat, or whatever she chooses. People should be valued based on what they do, not what they wear.

The author is director of the Liberal Democracy Institute of Egypt.