Are children affected by playing with toys that don’t look like them?
Growing up in Pakistan, I played with dolls that looked nothing like me. They had blonde hair, blue eyes and porcelain white skin. I had black hair, which I covered with a hijab when I grew up, brown eyes and coffee-coloured skin. Nothing about Barbie resembled my life, from the doll itself to her miniskirts to the lifestyle promoted in her books and movies. Her life was a fantasy for a little girl growing up in the suburbs of Karachi.
Some 30 years later, I now live on the other side of the world in a country described as a melting pot of cultures and identities. Here, the evolution of toy shelves has been painfully slow and we finally have a few POC representations. But sometimes, the cultural representations, however well-intended, are so off the mark and stereotypical that one wonders why they even bothered.
So, Mattel’s American Girl’s Eid al-Fitr celebration outfit was a bit of a surprise. The outfit designed for their 18-inch doll comprises a turquoise abaya, dark blue leggings, gold sandals and a bright pink hijab. And she even carries an Eidi (cash gift) envelope — a thoughtful touch — along with a booklet highlighting the holiday. The outfit may have hit its target audience.
The roughly $8 billion toy company introduced its first Muslim Barbie in 2017 to honour Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. However, it took a little bit longer for Mattel’s American Girl brand in acknowledging the growing Muslim market — this $36 outfit was only introduced earlier last year. The high-profile brand already has a collection of dolls representing dozens of cultures and races with names such as Nanea, Makena and Maritza
The optimist in me believes the American Girl Eid outfit may be a much-awaited step for a society that celebrates diversity, especially at a time when we are divided. But can a doll really help us bridge the growing gap of differences? And should a young girl’s identity be encapsulated by no more than one outfit and a few accessories?
As an exasperated Canadian Pakistani mother once said, “My 4-year-old daughter wants blue eyes Just like Elsa from Frozen. And I don’t know how to make her understand that her brown eyes are as beautiful, if not more.”
Yasmina Blackburn is an activist, doll collector and mother of a girl who loved the American Girl doll collection. A little over a decade ago, the Chicago resident wrote a letter to the then American Girl Doll president asking the company to include Muslim American representation in their lineup.
Blackburn didn’t want her 8-year-old, who is now 20, to feel left out.
American Girl wrote back saying they weren’t planning to introduce a doll with religious values, despite having one with a Jewish background. Undeterred, Blackburn began advocating in other ways, among them speaking to various doll owners and building an online community that kept demanding that companies diversify their products.
Blackburn believes that a company as big as Mattel — the world’s second-largest toymaker in terms of revenue — plays a role in influencing and shaping the behaviour of society and how non-mainstream identities are perceived. Seeing different cultural representations on the shelves helps to normalize those images in homes, classrooms and on the playground.
If we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that racism and ignorance continue to break down and rip apart this country’s wonderfully diverse fabric.
To counter the growing animosity, companies came together and founded CEO ACTION For Diversity and Inclusion, based on a belief that diversity, equity and inclusion are societal, as opposed to competitive, issues.
These business and marketing leaders saw that by collaborating and taking bold action — especially at the CEO level — they could drive change at a large scale. More than 2,000 CEOs, including Mattel, pledged to work on this inclusion.
American Girl introduced their first doll of colour in 2017, the same year that Mattel launched their Muslim fencer Barbie. As much as this act was celebrated, it was not enough for Blackburn, who told me, “I could’ve started a petition, but that has such a negative connotation to it. I believe we do better when we build relationships with businesses for the good of the broader community.”
Two years ago, she read a letter addressed to American Girl general manager Jamie Cygeilman on her podcast, reminding her of Mattel’s CEO action pledge and inviting her to have a conversation about a Muslim American Girl doll.
That letter set the ball rolling. Not only was she informed that American Girl would be designing a Muslim celebration outfit, but the company wanted her to help design it and ensure that it was culturally appropriate and respectful of Muslim beliefs.
Blackburn, a Muslim American of European heritage, understands that Muslims come in all colours, backgrounds and cultures. American Girl is planning to expand the collection by introducing a new Eid outfit representing the many different Muslim cultural representations each year.
And while the cost of an American Girl Doll can be expensive at over $100, “You can buy any 18-inch doll from Walmart or Target and put this outfit on her to give your girls the feeling of being represented. She can wear the whole thing or just the hijab on a top and jeans to look like any Muslim American girl out there,” Blackburn said.
Growing up in Color
My mother will be the first person to say that not having a doll that resembled me or my lifestyle didn’t really affect me or my self-confidence as I grew up. I would agree with her.
But I also grew up in a country surrounded by brown skin and Muslim values. I saw myself everywhere, from catalogues to classrooms. I wasn’t an anomaly and never had to explain my identity.
However, I can also see how white Barbies have impacted the subconscious of my brown society. Companies like Unilever profit off the backs of brown people with fairness cream products, instilling the message through their ridiculous advertising of “you can only be successful if your skin is whiter.” Such advertising is appalling, and the subversive messaging continues to this day in South Asian communities where even a hint of the dark is looked down upon.
Nanika Coor, a clinical psychologist and respected parenting therapist and consultant at Brooklyn Parent Therapy, says the toys our children play with help shape their view of the world and that racial diversity in toys is extremely important. Toys can assist children to navigate emotions, help them have social awareness and learn compassionate values. Toys that are not inclusive can send faulty ideas about race and diversity.
Racially diverse toys equip children with a sense of self and a message that they are valued. By having these toys and seeing them on toy shelves, children are told they don’t have to assimilate into white society. Consequently, white children should also see our differences, accept them and have toys that represent the reality in which they live.
Identity as an Accessory
Maybe what little Muslim girls want is a doll whose identity isn’t only wrapped up in a headscarf and ethnic dress. Since the hijab isn’t required at a young age, these young Muslimahs may want a doll who dons a hijab on special occasions but also has other facets to her story. Enter Salam Sisters (https://salamsisters.com/).
Salam Sisters Dolls were introduced in 2018 by a Dubai-based company called Zilheej. The founder, Peter Gould, a Muslim Australian, created five 18-inch dolls loosely inspired by real-life Muslim women. While they all come with headscarves, they also sport fantastic hairstyles such as afros or long brown or wavy blond hair. They come in a range of skin tones and wear jeans or dresses. They’re culturally diverse, loveable, fun and incredibly motivated girls who just happen to be Muslim. Their hijabs are rearrangeable, and they aim to inspire young Muslimahs to take pride in their faith, be comfortable with their roots and become community leaders.
“We want young girls who don’t often see their cultural identities and faith represented in a relatable way to know that they can be proud of their backgrounds,” says Ansarullah Ridwan Mohammad, co-founder of Zilheej. “We want them to see that all of who they are is uniquely beautiful — even when it sounds like the world is telling them that they don’t have the perfect hair, or skin colour, or size, or religion.”
The Salam Sisters represent various racial and ethnic backgrounds, thereby showcasing the incredible global diversity of the world’s roughly 1.8 billion Muslims. The dolls were given a wide range of interests and aspirations, including journalism, astronomy, art, history, sports and social leadership.
This type of representation needs to be encouraged. We may look different and have varying traditions, but we are also just mothers, daughters and wives with hopes, dreams and aspirations. And we deserve to realize them. And perhaps Muslim parents will be able to recognize and support a budding entrepreneur in their homes, one who demands and dreams of filling those gaps left by mainstream companies, just like Zilheej did.
Sarah Pervez, a storyteller, avid reader, spiritual seeker and published author, loves telling simple stories, finding meaningful lessons in life and looking at things through other people’s perspectives. After years of reading whitewashed literature, she is slowly building a bookshelf full of colour and loving it.