This article originally appeared in The Lily.
When I was a kindergartener in the 1960s, I, like many other little girls, owned a Barbie. She was a miniature blonde with a big bosom and a tiny waist and wide, surprised-looking eyes. She had rubbery legs that bent at the knee, which I moved back and forth so much they eventually split open. I didn’t ask my parents for a replacement doll.
Maybe I lost interest in Barbie because I didn’t connect with her in a meaningful way. Her features didn’t spark a sense of shared identity; I was the shortest kid in my class, with short brown hair and severely trimmed bangs.
Did I need to feel connected to Barbie — to see myself reflected in her — to enjoy playing with her? The existence of such a need is a common marketing concept in the doll industry.
Over the years, doll manufacturers have evolved their product to be more representative of the girls who own them. American Girl and Our Generation dolls come with backstories and accessories that reflect diversity in their demographics and interests. Mattel’s Barbie website reads, “When a girl plays with Barbie, she imagines everything she can become.” Barbie, who is celebrating her 60th birthday this year, is no longer only blonde and blue-eyed: She’s now available in a range of ethnicities, with varied features, professions and interests.
In 2018, the Salam Sisters entered the scene. They’re a set of five 18-inch dolls — Nura, Karima, Maryam, Layla and Yasmina — with a range of skin tones, hair colors and eye shapes. Each doll comes with a hairbrush, an activity book and an app that enables augmented reality play. Their bios are detailed and specific. Layla, for instance, loves “fashion, sewing, and creatively recycling clothes.” Nura likes science and solving mysteries and is also working hard to memorize the Quran.
Each doll also comes with two hijabs, one that requires a little styling skill and another that uses Velcro for easy on and off. Indeed, these hijabs are a key feature of the Salam Sisters dolls.
The dolls come amid a fraught political moment for the hijab. Just last week, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro was reportedly suspended after questioning on air whether Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) wearing a hijab was evidence of disloyalty to the Constitution.
But how impactful are the hijab-wearing Salam Sisters dolls on the girls playing with them?
Traditionally, Muslim women aren’t required to wear hijab until they reach puberty. The word “hijab” is broadly used to describe the head scarf, but more accurately describes a woman’s Islamic dress in total: customarily loosely draped clothing leaving only the face, hands and feet exposed. Islamic attire is not monolithic; Muslim women wear a range of styles and some choose not to cover fully, whereas some wear a face veil. For ritual prayer, being fully covered is required no matter one’s age or everyday dress.
I spoke with several mothers whose daughters own Salam Sisters. The moms uniformly lauded the dolls for providing an opportunity for their daughters to play with a doll that reflects their identity and perhaps provides an encouraging message about Islamic dress.
“It’s something they can relate to, especially since their mom is a hijab-wearing Muslim woman,” says Adeela Malik, whose daughters Zayna, 7, and Safiya, 5, own Salam Sisters dolls. “And I want the girls to wear hijab, so when I saw the dolls, I thought it was perfect.”
But according to Elizabeth Sweet, assistant professor in sociology and interdisciplinary social sciences at San Jose State University, the idea that dolls influence children’s behavior or reinforce a specific identity isn’t necessarily founded.
“A doll is probably not going to make or break that,” Sweet says of the idea that a hijab-wearing doll will influence a girl to wear hijab.
She notes, however, that it’s important for toys to have diverse ethnicities — not just for Muslims, but for everyone.
Salam Sisters are made by Zileej, a Toronto-headquartered company with offices in Dubai and Sydney. The concept for the dolls originated with Zileej co-founder Peter Gould, a convert to Islam who wanted to create something his own daughters could relate to.
Tayyaba Syed, a writer from Chicago whose 4-year-old daughter, Hafsa, owns the doll named Maryam, recognizes the dolls’ ability to reinforce a Muslim identity while acknowledging that hijab is secondary at such a young age.
“Even when she sees people outside wearing hijab, she says, ‘Oh, they’re Muslim,’ and she sees herself,” Syed says. “And if there are girls who choose not to wear hijab themselves, they don’t have to feel the doll is not for them.”
According to Zileej’s marketing director, Asma Ali, the company is not interested in crafting a message about whether or not Muslim girls should wear hijab.
“We don’t call them hijabi dolls,” Ali says. She points out that in their packages, the dolls wear hijab, but there is also a photo of them on the package showing their hair.
In 2017, Mattel added to their inventory a hijab-wearing Barbie, which was hailed by many as a step forward for minority girls’ representation in the mainstream toy market. But the hijabi Barbie is a reproduction of Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was the first Muslim American woman to wear a headscarf while competing. Many argued that spirit of inclusiveness was heartening but not, in practice, relatable.
Shenila Khoja-Moolji, assistant professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at Bowdoin College, chided Mattel shortly after Muhammad’s Barbie was released. In an Al Jazeera column, Khoja-Moolji wrote, “for-profit companies are not in the business of disrupting racial hierarchies.”
She argued that Mattel is selling “an imagined feeling of inclusivity to Muslim girls who often do not experience it in their daily lives.”
Zileej sees their mission as promoting diversity and inclusion. Salam Sisters are not dolls wearing hijab; they are dolls who have Muslim identities.
Zileej Creative Director Mara Burguete, who oversaw the development of the dolls from initial design to construction, says the company is driven by an authentic desire to offer dolls that represent Muslim girls.
The company hired an artist to sculpt the dolls’ faces to ensure each one reflected the physical features they sought. In designing the Salam Sisters’ clothes, they strove for “very natural clothes, very normal dresses like any girl would wear,” according to Burguete.
Monica Traverzo’s daughters, Layla, 5, and Maryam, 7, spent the money they got for the Eid holiday to buy their Salam Sisters dolls. Like other girls, they love playing with their dolls’ accessories and fixing their hair and clothes. They chose the dolls that have the same names as them, rather than choosing dolls they identify with by race or ethnicity. According to Traverzo, the dolls’ appearance makes no difference to them. Her girls recognize the dolls as “Muslim.”
Elizabeth Chin, a professor of media design practices at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., did a study in 1999 exploring the impact of dolls’ ethnicity. Like Sweet, she appreciates the dolls’ diversity but cautions against the idea that dolls can directly impact girls’ behavior and outlook.
From her research, she noticed a few things about how girls play with dolls. They go “off script” when left in privacy to play with their dolls (much as I did with my Barbie’s bendable legs). Doing the dolls’ hair is a primary way they play with them.
Rand El Jarrah’s 6-year-old daughter, Rewa, owns the Salam Sisters doll named Yasmina. While her mother appreciates the representation the doll offers, Rewa is more interested in her physical features.
“I think she is awesome and great,” Rewa told me, earnestly. “I can change her clothes and I can put her hijab on and off and I can change her hair.”
Ultimately, the inclusiveness the dolls promote can’t hurt. In the years since Trump’s election,Islamophobic incidents have risen. At the same time, those opposed to policies such as the travel ban have demonstrated increased support of American Muslims. This political and social tension is something hijab-wearing women will face in coming years. Will it be easier for girls who play with Salam Sisters dolls to deal with these controversies? Maybe, maybe not.
But surely those dolls offer more — diversity, in the very least — than skinny-legged, blonde-haired Barbie offered me.