American Girl is a company that makes exactly what the name implies: dolls representing American girls. Unlike other dolls, these ones have stories that represent some part of American history. Kit lives during the Great Depression, Kaya is a Native American girl growing up during the American revolution, Rebecca is a Russian Jewish immigrant living in 1910 America, Josefina is a Mexican girl in Santa Fe as it is still under Mexican rule, and Melody is an African American girl pursuing music during the civil rights era.
What’s most beautiful about these stories is that their characters aren’t solely struggling with identity or the politics of their time. They are girls with specific passions and hobbies, with moments of American history slipping into their lives. The darker parts of American history are there, too, such as European settlement and slavery.
However, there’s a group missing in this lineup of stories: Muslim Americans.
This gap demonstrates the common misconception that Muslims aren’t a part of American history, that we’ve only just recently become a part of American society (or even that we will never be fully American). In actuality, Muslims were some of the first people in this country, with 10-15% of slaves being Muslim. The late 19th and 20th centuries were marked by an influx of Arab Muslims. The members of the Nation of Islam played a big role in the civil rights movement.
So, yeah, Muslims have been here for a while now, and it’s odd American Girl hasn’t taken notice.
Two young Muslim girls – Salwa and Zahra – saw this gap after having read all the American Girl books and decided to confront the company about it. They decided to start a petition requesting the president of the American Girl company to create a Muslim doll.
This would be an economically strategic move for American Girl to take. The U.S. has about 8 million Muslims, and Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. In 2015, American Muslims spent $1.9 trillion, a number expected to turn into $3 trillion by 2021. It would be advantageous to pay attention to these numbers. Some companies, like Nike for example, are beginning to notice their Muslim customers and are tailoring their products to appeal to the large group. This is the perfect opportunity for American Girl to do the same.
That being said, I also urge American Girl not to blindly follow the new socially-conscious trend companies are taking just to increase sales. I hope they really listen to the stories of American Muslims and research our history because this will impact girls beyond Salwa and Zahra. It will send a message to everyone who doesn’t see herself in the toy aisle too often while also reminding others that Muslims are here, too.
I remember growing up with my own American Girl doll, essentially the toy version of myself. She had brown hair and green eyes, played the flute, loved arts and crafts, and I’m pretty sure had the same shirt as me. I gave this doll a white American name though, didn’t dress her in hijab (even though I got her around the time I started wearing it), and honestly kept any signs of her being Muslim or foreign away from her because that wasn’t what normal dolls were like. Had I seen dolls, poly-pockets, Barbies, anything that really looked like me, this might have been different. I might have been more confident in expressing my faith and culture with my dolls at home or even outside in public. It might have also made the idea of American Muslims more normal to my non-Muslim peers.
To me, the most gripping line of the girls’ petition is this:
“As American girls today, we are fortunate to be successors to a long line of real American girls who were strong, smart, courageous, and even defiant. But lately, it hasn’t always been easy to be strong.”
If there ever was a perfect time to include Muslim girls in our toy stores, it’s now, when even Muslim adults find it hard to be strong. The American Girl legacy is one of passion, unadulterated self-expression, and most importantly, unity amongst all American girls. If the company really wants to stick to that legacy, they need to consider the group that’s been here forever and still struggles to be considered American even today.