Rooting For Representation: Muslims In Pop Culture

(Featured Image Credit: Valery Lemay Illustration & Design)

I was beyond ecstatic when I first saw a hijabi doll displayed among the blonde and brunette dolls at Target. I spent all of my 11th birthday money on her: Sara. She wore a pink scarf and purple shoes. I tend to lose my Barbie dolls’ shoes from time to time, but I never lost any of Sara’s accessories, not even her tiny bangles. This doll made me genuinely happy because for the first time, I had a toy that was like me. A Muslim doll had finally moved into my dollhouse.

I don’t understand why it took 11 years to find a doll like me. I would always see blonde and brunette dolls with light skin as I walked down any doll aisle I could sneak away to, but I rarely saw dolls with dark hair and olive skin. I had far too many Barbie dolls, and all of them were blonde and light skinned. My younger self couldn’t consolidate these feelings, but there was something that made me feel left out. Now, it was not just the toys I played with; it was also the books I read, and the movies and TV shows I watched.

I was proud of my background even as a young kid. My younger brother and I were the only Muslims at our elementary school, which meant that I was the only one who had intricate henna designs on my hands around Eid time; everyone was always in awe, and my childish self loved the attention. I also enjoyed sharing Indian trinkets with my friends after returning from family trips to India.

I love my roots, and I love being different, but I wish I could see more representation in pop culture.

When I invest myself in the books I read, the screens I watch, the toys I used to play with, I always connect myself to a character, almost to the point where I see myself in that role. I always admired the heroines in the stories; I enjoyed Barbie’s roles in her movies, I enjoyed Ruby’s older sister role for Max, and I enjoyed Hermione’s courage and intelligence when she journeyed alongside Harry and Ron. But none of these characters looked like me. And it may sound silly, but I wanted to look like these characters; more or less, I wanted them to look like me. But it just wasn’t happening.

We are always told to embrace our uniqueness, but how can we do that if we don’t see diverse representation?

Little kids want to see characters like them. They want to watch a movie and say they are a superhero, or they are a princess because they look like them. Looks are obviously not everything — everyone loves a character with a charming, witty, or intelligent personality — but simply sharing a physical feature with a character goes such a long way. Having a similar trait can create this role model relationship, like having the same name as a character, or living in the same place as the story. It’s these little things that create a feeling of representation.

I am sure that as a child, we all had a special character we liked because they were similar to us in some sort of way. For me, it was Princess Jasmine (surprise surprise). By just sharing an Eastern culture, I loved her and Aladdin even more. It is not just children that feel this. At 17 years old, I still want to find a character that is like me in a story. That’s not to say I don’t turn away books or shows just because I don’t see someone like me, but I do get extremely excited when there is a character that shares the same skin tone.

It is 2019, and we have come a long way. Barbie dolls, movie characters, and book heroes have become more diverse. Just look at the Star Wars franchise as an example — the first trilogy was predominantly white, and now the more recent films have had both an Asian and an African American in the main cast. And some hijabis have made it onto the screens, with shows like “Quantico,” “Elite,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “The Bold Type.” The cartoon series “We Bare Bears” has a hijabi cameo in its title sequence. I even remember the quick appearance of a hijabi who sat behind Peter Parker in “Spider-Man Homecoming” during a classroom scene.

This is only the beginning. I cannot wait for the day when a little American-Indian Muslim girl walks down an aisle at Target and finds not just one, but multiple dolls with olive skin, dark hair, dark eyes, and a hijab.