Rinse and repeat a few times, and the inflation rate starts running into many zeros. ‘Pretty Woman’ heads to Broadway — still sugar-coating ugly truths
No, a hijab does not automatically equal oppression.
The world’s first hijab-wearing Barbie — modelled on American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad — is out, and her life in plastic is so far not fantastic. The doll has divided public opinion, with many slamming toy company Mattel Inc for promoting what they feel is a symbol of oppression.
The hijab, say critics, is among the most visible signs of patriarchal control over women, putting notions of modesty and “sexual purity” over a woman’s free will. A USA-based multinational, by placing the hijab on children’s toys, is helping perpetrate and perpetuate this regressive mentality, they say.
There are others who point out that a lot of women wear the hijab voluntarily, and Mattel, with the new doll, is promoting inclusion and increased representation, as opposed to its traditional white beauty pageant winner-esque dolls.
Mattel, in all probability, is doing neither.
It is just launching a new product in the hope of increased profits.
However, the other points are important — does a doll’s dress really merit a global debate over patriarchy and women’s agency? Is the hijab nothing but a symbol of oppression — or can it be a very visible proof of women’s choice?
Yes, Barbie’s clothes matter, because she is popular, visible and recognised, something a lot of communities across the world are not.
No, a hijab does not automatically equal oppression.
Assuming that every woman in a hijab is a brainwashed slave to, or a victim of, patriarchy is denying these women agency and choice, forcing them into a preconceived ‘victim’ stereotype.
If you must slam Mattel, there are other reasons
Barbie has never been a particularly progressive doll. It conforms to the unnatural, exacting standards the male gaze would love for women to meet. In 2013, a study by In Rehabs.com, which helps people with eating disorders and other problems, conducted an analysis that found the traditional Barbie, as a real woman, would be “five feet nine inches tall with a sixteen-inch waist, leaving room for only half a liver and a few inches of intestine”.
Also, the Barbie, an American doll, for long perpetuated the notion of white people being the default definition of “people”. The USA, and all the other markets Mattel has expanded to, has consumers of many other races.
Variety serves two important purposes — children of colour deserve to feel represented in popular culture, and white children deserve to be exposed to the vast variety of “people” that exist in the world.
Mattel has taken steps in the direction, and its “Shero” line — of which the Ibtihaj doll is a part — is modelled on women with inspiring stories, such as artist Frida Kahlo, aviator Amelia Earhart and others.
With 86% of US moms worried about the type of role models their daughters are exposed to, we are committed to shining a light on empowering female role models in an effort to inspire more girls.
Whether or not one supports the hijab, the fact is that millions of women wearing it exist around the world, and an internationally recognised doll, modelled on a, Olympic medal-winner wearing it, will serve to de-exotify them.
Ibtihaj Muhammad is by all standards and definitions an empowered woman — her doll can, hopefully, teach children that hijab can be a choice.
From the male fantasy of a cheerleader to dolls in various skin colours and body types is a step forward for Mattel, even if it’s driven by cynical profit-making.
Another criticism is that this is racial capitalism — big corporates profiting off cultures and communities they do little to help or integrate.
Mattel, if it cares about Muslim women, should not stop at the doll, it should maybe make its offices more inclusive. But the fact remains that with the hijab Barbie, it has to a degree normalised an article of clothing that is usually seen only through the lens of ‘oppression’ versus ‘choice’.
Hijab ≠ Oppression
There is no denying the fact that for a lot of women, the hijab is indeed an imposition, patriarchal, societal, religious or cultural. Even as the Ibtihaj doll makes it to stores, women in Iran are fighting a violent, uphill battle against compulsory hijab.
But choosing to look only at this reality, and disregarding the voices of women — educated, financially independent, conforming to the usual definition of “empowered” — is a distortion.
If the hijab is an imposition, so is the assumption that “I know better than you whether or not you are oppressed or brainwashed”.
In situations like Iran, and indeed around the world, it is not the hijab in itself that is wrong, it’s the compulsorisation of it. That is, inarguably, absolutely indefensible.
But let’s not pretend that the hijab is the only choice of clothing that society and patriarchy impose on women. Many women struggle to look “sexy”, as defined by the popular wisdom, battling self-esteem issues and eating disorders to look a certain way. These women are not empowered. They too are victims of patriarchy, just like some would assume those in a hijab to be.
The fact remains that what a woman chooses to wear is her business alone, without it becoming a social, political or religious battleground.