Izzy a gateway to tolerance

Ormiston Senior College student Izilah with Izzy, a doll with a hijab. Times photo Wayne Martin

Bullied, ostracised and treated like a social outcast, Izilah Mohammed is determined to find her identity through a soft toy with a hijab called Izzy.

The 17-year-old Ormiston Senior College student says she doesn’t want others to go through what she did.

It’s the very reason why she kick-started a social business enterprise called Hijabity (Hijab plus Identity) as part of the Young Enterprise Scheme (YES) in which students are given an opportunity to unleash their inner entrepreneur, and introduce a new product or service.

Izilah changed schools in Year 13 from Otahuhu College to Ormiston College only because she heard of the number of YES awards the college has won. She says she is determined to prove that people shouldn’t be judged by what they wear but for who they are.

Admitting that she went through a lot of self-esteem issues as she was dropped from friends’ groups because she wore a head scarf, Izilah surprised her teachers by insisting she would like to go solo for the social enterprise project.

“I knew that no one would be as passionate about the idea as I am. I had to tell my own story. Even though I was born here in New Zealand and started wearing the hijab nine years ago, I was left out and degraded because of my conservative outlook,” she admits.

“Growing up, a lot of students were confused and would ask me if I was a refugee or if I spoke English. Some tried brainwashing me to remove my head covering.

“That’s why I decided to come up with the business idea of creating a doll called Izzy with a brightly coloured hijab so that if kids grow up with a doll like this one, they are familiar with the idea and are more accepting of people who look or dress differently,” she says.

Izilah is passionate about empowering Muslim women while educating non-Muslims on the significance of hijabs. She says that the journey has been a challenging one.

“My teacher was unsure if I could take on all the roles of a CEO or a marketing manager or financial director which are normally shared by the team—including the cost.”

But Izilah’s drive and passion overrode everything as she won the internal school challenge where all students made a 40 second pitch.

“It was the first time I pitched the idea in front of 300 students,” she says.

“Also, this is my first year of business studies in Year 13 and I had no connections or clue about how to go about arranging meetings with organisations.”

Izilah contacted the regional coordinator of YES who connected her with the Social Innovation department at the University of Auckland. She also connected with the Khadija Leadership Network, New Zealand Ethnic Women’s Trust, Deloitte and the South Auckland Muslim Association.

Izilah organised a product launch at her home on the Eid Festival where she had around 300 guests drop in.

Having spent a lot of time trying to connect with manufacturers in China to get the right fabric, look and colour for the vibrant doll, she is now taking pre-orders.

Izilah says that the light-hearted slogan for Izzy the doll is: ‘The girl who wore a hijab’, a poignant reflection of her personal journey.