Applauding Mattel for support of strong girls

Mattel Inc. has introduced a Barbie doll that wears a headscarf (hijab). The doll honors an athlete in last year’s Rio de Janeiro Games, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was the first American Olympian to compete wearing a hijab. In her column (Marietta Times, Nov. 20), Adriana Cohen argues that a doll so dressed promotes the oppression and subjugation of girls and women. We disagree.

In the United States, many highly-educated, professionally-accomplished, strong-willed Muslim women choose — of their own free will — to wear the hijab. Why? Their answers vary, but here are three frequent responses.

Modesty — for both men and women — is central to Islam. It has been central to other religions as well, including Christianity. Even today, there are branches of Christianity (for example, the Amish and some Mennonites) that prescribe modest dress.

Some Muslim women view the hijab as a way to free themselves from being judged by their appearance. By wearing it, they signal that they want to be judged according to their inner character, and that they value chastity.

Thirdly, some wear the hijab to indicate their commitment to Islam and to the teachings of Muhammad. A person who looks closely at the life of the Prophet Muhammed will see that he was a person who considered men and women equals and dramatically improved the lives of the women of his time. He ended female infanticide, encouraged women to pursue education and professions, granted women the right to divorce, sought the counsel of women and appreciated their thinking. Most importantly, he taught that there is to be no compulsion in religion; all persons must choose for themselves.

Columnist Cohen makes the error of confusing religion and culture. Islam, with more than a dozen branches, has over 1.8 adherents around the world, most in countries outside the Middle East. Though the basic principles and reliance on the Qur’an have remained constant, the expression of Islam has both adapted to and been influenced by the various cultures.

Exactly how Muslim women are to dress is subject to interpretation. Thus we see diversity in relation to head coverings. In some countries, Muslim women wear turbans; in others, veils. Some dress all in black; others wear colorful, exquisitely decorative scarves. In some countries (Indonesia and Lebanon, for example) head coverings are rarely seen.

In repressive cultures, women may be either compelled to cover themselves in public or forbidden to wear a headscarf. But that is cultural coercion in action, not religion.

Rather than viewing Mattel’s new hijab-clad doll with alarm, we applaud the toy maker for its sensitivity to diversity and its encouragement of strong girls who will make choices that reflect who they truly are and what they value.

Dr. Mary Jeanette Ebenhack

Martha McGovern

Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group in Marietta