While most may view Barbie as a children’s toy, others see it as a means to make a statement. Twenty five-year-old Haneefah Adam, a Nigerian visual artist, transformed the classic doll with a new look and created Hijarbie, Barbie wearing a hijab. Her unique take on the timeless doll has garnered worldwide attention from fans, celebrities and the media.

“I understand that kids mostly play with dolls, but the way Hijarbie was created, it was an avenue for self-expression. I created the Instagram page so that young and older girls or women can still see it and be inspired. Either for the mums who want something different for their daughters or just to see wholesome Instagram content,” says Adam.

She took the doll, generally aimed at youth, and sought to increase the reach of its audience by appealing to a more under-represented group, Muslim women. Historically, the doll market has had few options for girls that feature Muslim culture. “Most of my artistic expressions cover women’s issues. Because I’m a woman and I draw most of my inspiration from my lived experiences, I usually portray women.”

Over its lifetime, Barbie has enjoyed more than 200 professions ranging from dog walkers to astronauts. Adam’s Hijarbies take this directive a step further by highlighting female Muslim heroes, such as US Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, British fashion influencer Habiba da Silva, Egyptian marathon runner Manal Rostom, US Democratic senate candidate Deedra Abboud, award-winning filmmaker Samah Safi Bayazid and Somalian-American state representative Ilhan Omar.

“The response has been amazing. Apart from the people who I recreated, everyone thought it was such a neat way of presenting inspirational women in a positive light that we can all either aspire to, or work towards our own best self.”

Mattel, since the late 1960s, has been gradually broadening ethnic and cultural representation in its dolls and it ushered in the first black Barbie in 1968. In 1997, Mattel introduced Barbie in a wheelchair, expanding its reach to the differently-abled community. And this past year, Mattel even introduced Barbie with Down Syndrome. Barbie is now featured in 35 different skin tones, 97 hairstyles and nine body types. Adam’s idea, however, came in 2016, a year before Mattel introduced its first Barbie in a hijab.

“My inspiration was from seeing a Barbie style page on Instagram and then stumbling on other doll fashion pages. I noticed there wasn’t anyone that looked like me, a girl wearing a hijab, and then I decided to create it,” she says, explaining her foray into the world of dolls.

Adam is not alone in this global Barbi-fication phenomenon. Barbie has led to a pink revolution in fashion and pop culture. This past year has seen ‘Barbie pink’ spike in Google searches, and its social media mentions increased by 21 per cent. Last winter, Pierpaolo Piccioli’s 2022 collection featured all-pink at the Valentino fashion show in Rome. Celebrities have taken to the trend as well with A-listers such as Priyanka Chopra, Zendaya and Anne Hathaway seen sporting Barbie pink. While their outfits range from Western styled pant suits and evening gowns, there was a dearth of other cultural garbs making headlines. For Adam, this was an opportunity.

“As a Muslim woman, I have seen some of the efforts designers in the fashion industry have made towards being more inclusive of modest fashion. And sometimes when there’s no representation, we create our own. That’s how Hijarbie came about,” she elaborates.

Adam’s home country, Nigeria, has one of the largest Muslim communities in Africa with roughly half its population being Muslim. The traditional garb of Muslim women features a more modest approach to fashion. Although there is less emphasis on exposure, there is still a high demand for style. “I consider a lot of factors. What I’m trying to portray and in what mood the doll might be in. Is she dressing up to a formal event or a casual fun outing? This will inspire what style or colours she’ll put on.”

Seeing a classic Barbie wearing a hijab quickly fostered attention once Adam began showcasing her work on social media sites. Her page quickly gained momentum in early 2016 when she began to get noticed by media outlets as well. Her Instagram page has a strong following just north of 60,000 and shows no signs of slowing down.

“It was after I was first featured on mic.com. And I think it was published on Yahoo news. With its one-of-a-kind Instagram content and how I created real-life women for the page as well, it quickly gained traction. That was about six years ago when it was being reported on major news and media sites.”

After studying at Coventry University for her masters in pharmacology and as the daughter of two PhD holders, Hijarbie was quite the pivot for Adam. However, alongside all the attention, Adam has managed to create a business for herself as well. She transformed her vision into a lucrative platform and now operates a website, Hijarbie.co, where Hijarbies can be purchased. The website has performed well enough for Adam to support herself. Her parents are pleased. “They always support my artistic expressions, so it was just another thing I was doing.”

As for the future of Hijarbie, Adam plans to continue her designs. Her creativity, combined with the interest the public has shown, creates a wealth of options. The release of the new Barbie film has only increased visibility and sales of toys worldwide. The sensation that Barbie has created may be the perfect punch for Adam’s growing following. With an established platform to showcase her virtues with her work, the sky is the limit.

“I’ll continue to create amazing content for social media. So I think there’ll be more in terms of products and storytelling. Barbie is a product that has stayed with us all for multiple generations. She’s a source of inspiration and a source of expression for many artists as well. It reflects on daily experiences and careers and it’s a positive development that Barbie continues to consider inclusion and diversity,” Adam sums up about her future plans.

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