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A Woman in Britain Is Making Faceless 'Islamic Dolls'

Ridhwana B., the doll's creator, designed it to comply with what some interpret as Islamic religious law's prohibition on the depiction of distinct features on any children's toy.

Deeni doll photo via Twitter user ​Hussain Master

Yesterday a woman in England's Lancashire County drew local media attention after she launched an "Islamic doll" with no facial features. Dubbed Romeisa, the doll's face is entirely flat, cushy, and eerie, draped in a hijab. Ridhwana B., the doll's creator, designed it as the first model of a larger Deeni (Arabic for faith) Doll collection, which seeks to comply with what some interpret as Islamic religious law's prohibition on the depiction of distinct features on any children's toy.

"I came up with the idea from scratch after speaking to some parents who were a little concerned about dolls with facial features,"  Ridhwana, a former teacher at a Lancashire Muslim school,  ​told the Lancashire Telegraph. "I spoke to a religious scholar in Leicester who guided me through what was and was not permissible when producing the product," she said.

The doll, after four years in development, is manufactured in China and undergoing limited distribution (via inquiries to  ​info@deenidolls.com) for about $40 a pop. Believing the selection of toys for observant, strictly orthodox Muslim children is quite limited now, Ridhwana claims she is considering launching a wider range of products and writing a book on Islamic child rearing.

Although it's attracted a good deal of local interest,  Ridhwana's doll is not the first faceless model in the world. In the thriving niche of Islamic toys, there are actually several dedicated faceless doll makers, but the Lancashire Telegraph reports that Ridhwana's dolls are unique for their high-quality production.

Faceless dolls derive from Islamic religious texts that prohibit the depiction of humans and animals in any medium (although encountering faces on things like coins is accepted as unavoidable). This stems from the belief, familiar to Christians and Jews, that one ought not to create or worship idols and the fear that depictions of man or beast will lead to false worship, or at least distract people from their focus on Allah.

Creating dolls in human and animal form is explicitly exempted form these rules, so long as they have no facial features, based on stories that the Prophet Muhammad's wife, Aisha, played with dolls and the belief that they can teach young girls how to show affection and care for children. In the past this has led religious authorities to suggest that observant Muslims burn the faces off of their children's mainstream dolls for lack of accessible faceless alternatives.

Muslim attitudes on depictions of humans and animals in art have varied over time. Often such images have appeared in religious texts, justified as useful visual aids and indicating the historic, although not universal, acceptance of human images by devout Muslims. Even depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, quite controversial in recent years, were fairly common until the 17th century and tolerated into the modern era. (For those in New York, there's a pretty good one from medieval Afghanistan on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

This acceptance of human forms continues in much of the Muslim world. For example, many of the numerous toys aimed at Muslim children—like Iran's Sarah and Dara (local competitors with Barbie, who herself has donned a burqa in a bid at inclusiveness) or the globally marketed Amina, Little Farah, or Razanne dolls—convey religious and cultural values but carry human features.

For those who do observe the taboos on doll faces, many small-to-large producers, like Aisha Dolls, Faatimah's Dolls, Rainbow Dolls, and Smart Ark, have offered a wide range of featureless editions in many shapes, sizes, colors, and types of clothing for years.

Many wish to purchase such dolls for more than just religious observance or the inculcation of traditional female and maternal values. Some Amish communities continue to produce and use faceless dolls to avoid idolatry, to endanger a sense of equality, and to avoid vanity. And the Waldorf educational system, with its focus on self-directed learning, values and makes faceless dolls as a tool for undirected, imaginative play.

Despite their niche market and possible cross-cultural appeal or re-appropriation, the fact that  Ridhwana's dolls originated and are sold in Britain has raised some hackles among Brits who see them as yet another sign of a foreign culture usurping their own. One headline on the dolls' release reads, " Britain surrenders to Islam again."

It's a bad time for  Ridhwana to receive that kind of press. Riding a wave of xenophobic nationalism, fueled by accusations that Islamists recently tried to take over a Birmingham school district, hate crimes against Muslims increased by 65 percent over the past year in parts of the UK. Any perceived provocation may, now more than ever, result in atrocious backlashes.

But for the vast majority of humanity not convinced that some cloth and stuffing can bring down their culture, the Romeisa is just a toy. It's a bit of a creepy toy that will make some think more of a horror movie than of playtime session—granted, even  Ridhwana acknowledges that some will find it strange. And some may not agree with the traditional or religious values it relates to. But as the Waldorf folks will tell you, children love to make up their own narratives for their playthings. And a faceless doll can truly be anything they want it to be. It's conceivable Ridhwana could, for this very reason, garner a fair market outside of the Muslim world. Although for now we'll have to wait and see how her Deeni Dolls stack up to the surprisingly robust faceless competition. 

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.