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Robert Azzi: Hijabi Barbie – the power of Ibtihaj Muhammad

  • Ibtihaj Muhammad prepares for the start of a women’s team sabre qualifying match against Tunisia at the World Fencing Championship in Catania, Italy, on Oct. 15, 2011. AP



For the Monitor
Sunday, November 19, 2017

My daughter grew up with Barbies – blondes, brunettes, black-haired Barbies – one of the 92 percent of American girls from 3 to12 who’ve owned a Barbie doll.

Barbies of many colors could be found in almost every room of our house – I swear there were days when they seemed to reproduce on their own – and with the help of doting parents and relatives these unnaturally shaped creatures were sheltered in a Barbie house, languidly lounged on pink chaise lounges and transported in a pink Corvette.

They were also subject to some domestic abuse. Occasionally, their hands would be chewed upon and would end up looking like unnaturally formed appendages with distended fingers. Hair was curled, cut, chopped and occasionally colored in unnatural hues.

Heads were occasionally removed and exchanged from body to body.

But hey, it was Barbie; she could survive anything.

While she had astronaut and surgeon Barbies, and while she played with “Barbie Becky I’m the School Photographer,” my daughter frequently gravitated back to classic Barbie, the too-white, overly-busty, diminutively-waisted cheerleader doll that grotesquely defined the normative for female dolls in America from 1959.

Who knew, after all that, what Barbie was truly capable of?

This week cataclysmic tremors rocked Barbie World when Mattel unveiled, at the GlamourWomen of the Year Summit, Muslim Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad – with head scarf and a saber – in its Shero doll series.

Shero is a series designed to represent models of women who have broken barriers, inspired girls – and who themselves played with Barbies as a girl. The first Shero doll – a one-off – was of Zendaya Coleman, created after she was criticized for wearing dreadlocks to the 2015 Oscars.

Other Sheroes include Selma director Ava DuVernay, actress Emmy Rossum, Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth, Lucky magazine editor Eva Chen, 5-year-old fashion designer “Mayhem” Keiser and plus-sized model Ashley Graham.

Last year, Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas and ballet dancer Misty Copeland – the first African American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (who insisted that Mattel “not shy away from the fact that I have muscular calves, hips, a bust and brown skin”) – joined the Shero pantheon.

The latest Shero, announced this week but not available until 2018, represents Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American to compete and win an Olympics medal while wearing a hijab.

“When I was a kid, I remember people commenting on the size of my thighs,” Muhammad told the New Yorker. So, when Mattel proposed an Ibtihaj Muhammad Barbie, Muhammad requested that the doll have big, strong legs, that she wear dark eyeliner – that she wear a hijab.

She got her wish – and some more American girls got a doll that looks a bit like them.

“Today, I’m proud to know that little girls who wear a hijab and, just as powerfully, those who don’t, can play with Barbie in a headscarf,” says Muhammad. “I know that the more diverse dolls are offered, the many more inspiring stories girls will be able to tell.”

Responses to Mattel’s announcement quickly fell into two camps:

1. Those who praised Mattel for embracing an image beyond the normative; those who see Muhammad as an inspirational figure defined by her willingness to challenge stereotypes and overcome traditional barriers and conventions, her triumph a stiff riposte to those who would deny her legitimacy.

2. And those, like noted Islamophobe Pamela Geller who sees only the hijab, who wrote, “The new Barbie Is modeled after a failed American Olympian whose only claim to fame is she wears a hijab. What next? Barbie sex slave? Barbie child bride?”

Failed? How many Olympic medals has Pamela Geller won?

Geller, and those like her who wrote, tweeted and spoke in opposition, while thankfully not in the majority, are un-American and reflect ignorance, xenophobia and fear. If they were fencers they would get “Black Cards” for their ugliness.

It’s not Barbie that Geller fears. What she, and Islamaphobes, racists and white supremacists like her truly fear is, as Muhammad said, “that (the doll) will push the boundaries of inclusiveness even further.”

They fear an inclusive, diverse and pluralistic America. They fear the rejection of their xenophobia and nativism, of their bigotry and ignorance.

They fear the triumph of the wisdom of our Founding Fathers.

On May 15, 2016, I wrote: “Ibtihaj Muhammad is a New Jersey-born fencer who is ranked seventh in the world in the saber. This summer in Rio, Ibtihaj will be the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing hijab, the Muslim head scarf many women wear – a tribute to the diversity and inclusiveness of the United States of America, a nation of many colors, many faiths, many cultures brought together under one flag – indivisible.”

In the future, Muhammad’s doll may inspire others in marginalized or disenfranchised communities – others who’re discriminated against because of color, gender, ethnicity or religion – to rise above prejudice, constraints and conventions to triumph in saber, in soccer, in STEM, in social justice.

In the meantime, riding in a pink Corvette is really cool.

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. He can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.)