Why My Daughter Is Getting Hijab Barbie for Christmas

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Ibtihaj Muhammad at Glamour Magazine's Women of the Year Awards. (Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
Ibtihaj Muhammad at Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year Awards. (Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Mattel’s new hijab Barbie is modeled after Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who bravely broke stereotypes by wearing a hijab while winning a bronze in the Olympic games in Rio.

New Barbie certainly has a lot of people talking about her.

Maureen Callahan of the New York Post described Hijabi-fencer Barbie as “really, really disturbing.” Critics railed that it represents the injection of Islamist modesty culture into the American political sphere. The presence of the Islamic headscarf on an icon such as Barbie, the argument goes, normalizes and encourages Islamist misogyny under the guise of cultural acceptance.

It does nothing of the sort. Given the sorts of clothes she normally wears, it is inconceivable that the Barbie has suddenly taken on an Islamic ethos of modesty.

Nor is it, as the San Francisco Chronicle would have it “empowering for young girls.” Most of the little girls playing with Barbie will have no idea what a hijab is, nor who Ibtihaj Muhammad is. Nor are they looking to Barbie to be a role model.

Children’s play is not pegged to what the manufacturers want. I remember vividly my (rugged, chiseled) G.I. Joe delivering a solid punch to ice-skating Ken’s soft pathetic jaw, before inviting my sister’s (giggling) ice-skating Barbie into Joe’s missile-equipped sports car and driving off with her into the sunset leaving poor pink-leotarded Ken knocked out on the ground. No doubt that was not the fate Mattel intended for Ken.

No, this is a cash grab pure and simple, by a big corporation that wants to sell toys.

Is it a coincidence that hijabi-fencer Barbie has come out a little over a month before Christmas?

The target audience is liberal mothers (or fathers or gender neutral caregivers) who, in a desire to prove their multicultural credentials in Trump’s America, will now be motivated to purchase (of all things) a Barbie for their children.

And how convenient for Mattel that there is all this controversy, such rage around this toy’s existence! Hijabed Barbie has received coverage around the world in left wing, right wing, centrist and even a-political outlets. The backlash against it alone provides the left with moral justification to purchase the toy.

Surely what better way to stick it to Trump and the “Islamophobes” who want to shut this down than to buy your precious daughter, still reeling from Hillary’s defeat, a hijab Barbie! What better testament could there be to your credentials as a kind, decent, intersectional feminist, who cares about women’s rights and challenging racism in equal measure, and who wants to raise their child to believe in the values of tolerance and mutual respect?

Mattel knows all of this, of course. They have highly paid teams of researchers whose jobs it is to keep Mattel on the pulse of the zeitgeist and advise Mattel about what is likely to sell best. They have weighed the pros and cons of free media vs paid adverts and have rightly figured out that a controversial toy will sell better than a conventional one. And they know that what everyone is talking about right now is Islam and women’s rights.

At the end of the day, hijabi-fencer Barbie is a glowing testament to the ingenuity and adaptability of American capitalism. An Islamic garment that is supposed to keep women modest has been repackaged as a cheap accessory for a notoriously immodest doll in order to spark a media circus that will help move products from shelves to cash registers.

None of this would be possible in a totalitarian country or an Islamist country. The existence of a thriving free market, free press and an engaged citizenry willing to take part in lively (if heated) debates on the direction of the country are all necessary preconditions for hijabi-Barbie to be a success.

I don’t much care about the hijab itself one way or the other, of course. If people want to wear it, fine. If they don’t want to wear it, they shouldn’t be forced to. If people want to buy dolls wearing hijabs for their children, I don’t see it as a problem.

What I do care about is capitalism, free societies and the American dream. And the media frenzy surrounding hijab Barbie is a testament to the triumph of these ideas. For all these reasons, I will be buying my daughter a hijabi-fencer Barbie for Christmas this year.

Advertising executives of Mattel, I salute you.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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