Mattel has just released its latest Barbie modelled on Ibtihaj Muhammad, the bronze-medal winning Olympic fencer. And why not? A woman who can handle a sword is really cool. Making dolls in the image of super-fit, agile, sword-wielding Olympians is the kind of thing I approve of. So I was puzzled when I read Muhammad’s tweet earlier this week:
‘Now little girls everywhere can now play with a Barbie who chooses to wear hijab!’?
The hijab makes her cool? Not the Olympic, blade expert female Zorro part? Oh. Well as long as Barbie’s happy, that’s the main thing. Are you happy, Barbie? Was it not enough for little girls to fashion a hijab for you out of an old hankie if they didn’t think you were dressed appropriately? Barbie? Oh, wait: Barbie’s a toy and can’t talk, let alone exercise choice. Bit like the 40 million women in Iran who can’t choose whether or not to wear the hijab either, except they’re not made of plastic. But this is not about Barbie’s Right To Choose, rather Mattel’s need to tell the world how much they love success and female empowerment and Muslims too, Mr Trump! Love success – good; love Muslims – good too (though not their religion); but female empowerment? When will corporations cotton on to the fact the hijab represents the opposite of female empowerment? That in Islamic countries, like Somalia and Afghanistan even if it’s not actually illegal not to wear it, in practice it is impossible for women to go outside without covering because of the harassment they experience. Where there’s no choice, there’s no empowerment.
But if Ms Muhammad, a Muslim who obviously chooses to wear the hijab, used this opportunity for a little da’wah, so what? After all if Mattel wanted to make a Lizzie Schofield Barbie, I’d make sure she wore a cross necklace and tweet that it’s because Barbie knows in her little plastic heart that Jesus died for her. However I wonder if Ms Muhammad realises that it’s a matter of debate among Islamic scholars whether girls playing with dolls is even allowed? (Notice the gender: for boys it’s haram, end of.)
Some say it’s OK, because it helps little girls develop their maternal feelings, and because Muhammad’s child wife Aisha used to play with dolls. According to Sahih Muslim, ‘she was taken to his house as a bride when she was nine, and her dolls were with her.” Yet many scholars agree that playing with dolls in only appropriate for pre-pubescent children: by the time they reach puberty, they can understand that dolls are images of humans, and human images are haram. (The fact that she had dolls with her demolishes the argument that Aisha had reached puberty by the time of her marriage.)
Muhammad Ibn Adam of Darul Iftar, Leicester, takes the view that Aisha’s dolls would have been primitively made, without features, unlike the dolls of today. He writes
Picture-Making of animate things has been prohibited by many narrations of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace). In a Hadith recorded by Imam al-Bukhari in his Sahih, the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said:
The most severely punished on the day of Qiyamah will be those who make (animate) pictures.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
Therefore, if the dolls are fully structured, meaning they have the head with the eyes, ears, mouth, etc, then it will be impermissible to acquire them, give them as a gift or for small children to play with them. However, if the dolls do not have a head, meaning they do not have eyes, ears, nose and mouth which make them incomplete, then it will be permissible to make them and give them to small children.
Does Barbie have a head, eyes, nose and mouth? Hmmm. So for Barbie to be truly Islamic according to Muhammad Ibn Adam, she needs serious maiming, if not beheading. If she ‘chooses’ to wear the hijab after that, she should continue to wear it round her neck, as that is her juyubihinnya (Arabic for body, face, neck and bosom, according to Sura 24:11) and still requires covering. Or maybe, in her little plastic heart, she might decide Islam isn’t for her.