Coming across a fatwa suggesting that it was best to melt the features off of a child’s toy doll was understandable to me, yet still disturbing. I understand and respect the good intention behind the suggestion, but was horrified by how potentially damaging that could be for a young child who feels a deep connection to their baby doll. It’s not even necessary to take this drastic, toxic (melting plastic is toxic, don’t try it at home!) measure when there are so many ‘sunnah style’ (faceless) dolls available on the market and relatively easy to make. In the years since I read that fatwa, I have come to learn that there is a wide variety of approaches to doll play for children taken by Muslims.
No dolls to any dolls
Some parents think it is impermissible to keep dolls, like other images of living things, in the home. Some don’t keep dolls for cultural reasons, such as believing it is shameful for children to undress them. At the other end of the spectrum parents don’t seem to think much at all about the kind of toys their children play with, allowing them to play with sexualised and violent toys – these toys being the key tools that will both help to craft the child’s identity as well as foster their imagination and ultimately their intelligence.
Why no eyes?
Before I was introduced to the Islamic rulings on dolls for children (in a date seed: yes, kids can play with dolls, but the simpler in form the better), I was introduced to the Waldorf and other open-ended play pedagogies’ methods of using dolls for children. In these non-Muslim traditions, dolls and stuffed animals are often simply made, using natural fibres such as wool and sometimes don’t have facial features or minimally just have a stitch each for eyes and a mouth. They are similar to what are called ‘rag dolls.’ The concept behind these dolls is ‘open-ended play’, meaning that the toy or object is an opening for the child to engage in play. Simpler toys, such as blocks, cardboard boxes and swaths of fabric, invite the child to create their own game or story. The more detailed the toy is, the less creatively the child can engage with it. For example, dolls and figures made to resemble specific media characters are mostly only used to play out the actions and scenarios children have seen those characters perform on TV or in movies. Open-ended dolls are often featureless or have simple features because this allows the child to give the doll any emotion the child wants while playing with it.
Ginger Davis (Ummlayla) is a Waldorf-trained early childhood educator who has long used sunnah-style dolls in her classrooms, though her first experiences of Muslim parents’ reactions to the dolls surprised her: “I started making faceless dolls when I taught kindergarten at an Islamic school. It was actually an uphill battle for me because I thought adhering to the rule of no representations of faces was important (given the setting) and some parents actually complained because they found the practice strange. It was a shock to me because I was trying to be careful in setting up my classroom and had spent my own time making the dolls.”
Making sunnah-style dolls
Some of the parents may have considered these dolls to be an extreme interpretation of Islam, but unfortunately they did not ponder the hikmah (wisdom) and benefits of giving their children dolls similar to those described in ahadith, such as the one A’isha t played with. These are not ‘old fashioned’ toys; rather, many educators consider them the best of the ‘classic’ toys. A’isha’s t dolls have been the inspiration for several sisters who made dolls for their own children to eventually start up businesses, such as Umm ‘AbdirRahmaan’s company, Aisha Dolls. When Umm ‘AbdirRahmaan couldn’t find any faceless, sunnah-style dolls on the market for her own children, she made some. “In the beginning I mostly had my own children in mind and their upbringing. After realising the need for this toy in the Muslim community, the idea expanded and I wanted to assist every Muslim family that wishes to uphold Islamic values in their home, creating toys that can support them in their upbringing of their children.” Currently, Aisha Dolls offers a full line of “multicultural dolls with different skin colours, reflecting our Muslim community.” Umm ‘AbdirRahmaan explains, “Aisha Dolls are faceless, wearing modest/Islamic clothing, soft to cuddle and play friendly. They cater to Islamic values and are made with quality and imaginative play in mind, all very important aspects of every Muslim child’s life and upbringing.”
Mahasin Abdullah also began making sunnah-style dolls for friends and family members who couldn’t find them. The many positive reactions to her dolls encouraged Mahasin to begin selling her individually made ‘Rainbow Babies Dolls’ at fairs and online. While Mahasin observes the sunnah of leaving off facial features, her dolls are especially beautiful, made personalised in a rainbow of buyers’ favourite colours and wearing unique handmade clothes. After having made dozens of dolls for other people, Mahasin now has a daughter of her own she can make dolls for!
Dalecia Young opened her Etsy shop, Love, d. last year to sell her fine made “simple & sweet necessities for modern women, babies & families” and soon after began doll making as “a new creative challenge.” Dalecia explains that, “when I make garments or other items, I usually aim for them to be as identical as possible; I try to maintain this consistency of standards. With the dolls, each one has to be unique, just like the little person they are being made for. Sure, of course the basic construction of my dolls is standard, but for the little details, they’ll always be different. Many times my customers ask me to make my dolls in the likeness of the special little person they’re meant to be played with. This for me is the funnest part in finding the perfect skin tone and designing the hair. Each doll I’ve made has taught me something new. It is really a way for me to become lost in the creative process.” When my own daughter first saw the Love, d. doll that was custom made for her, she squealed “That’s me!” – a reaction she has never had to any of the little plastic dolls she has been gifted.
What about boys?
Dolls for boys is an even trickier dilemma among Muslims and our various cultures. Just as child educators support encouraging all children to express themselves through doll playing, there is jurisprudence to support allowing boys to play with dolls, though boys are generally more inclined to play with the smaller “action figure” like dolls, as has been the experience of Ginger: “I especially think boys enjoy smaller figures that can engage in imaginary scenarios. Girls love those too! Don’t forget those tiny dolls – they lead to all kinds of awesome play in environments created by children.”
Faceless dolls may still seem odd to us adults but when young children are introduced to sunnah-style dolls they don’t see what is missing; instead they see an invitation, such as a blank canvas on which they can project infinite ideas and adventures. To the right are some sources for buying sunnah-style dolls, but you can also try your hand (or beg a crafty friend) at making your own. There are many doll-making kits available online and in some craft stores, I have had success using the Weir kit. For doll makers who are crafting with yarn, there are innumerous knitting and crochet patterns available that are designed to not include facial features or could easily be adjusted as you like. Just as imaginative play is healthy for children, a little creating can do wonders for our brains and children especially love all things made with love, just for them.
When Brooke Benoit isn’t crafting with text or edible objects, she enjoys making a wide variety of educational tools with her six kids, including costumes, tumbled rocks, animal habitats, home accessories and of course many kinds of dolls.
This article appears in the November 2014 issue of SISTERS Magazine (the magazine for fabulous Muslim women).
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