Ambika Shaligram
Thursday, 21 March 2019

Author Sabyn Javeri takes us inside the world of Muslim women through her new book, Hijabistan. She argues that there is so much more to the women than the cloth on their heads

Hijabistan has 16 stories of women wearing a veil. To call them powerful would be a cliche. In the words of Sabyn Javeri, the author — ‘The one thing in common I found when researching these stories was that all the women I spoke to were hiding something. Therefore the title ‘Hijabistan’ or the land of the hidden. Not hijab as imagination has limited it — you would be surprised how many people can’t think beyond hijab being a garment. For them, the word is incapable of having any other meaning and it is this stereotyped thinking that I wanted to challenge.’ 

Here, Javeri talks about what it means to be a Muslim woman wearing a veil. 

Javeri, who is known for her full length novel Nobody killed her, says that short stories are her first love. Hijabistan, published by HarperCollins, has a couple of stories which were published in magazines. The author says, “Many of the stories were written at different times, place and during different stages of my life. These are stories by Sabyn the young bride, Sabyn the immigrant, the mother, the student, the teacher and finally by Sabyn the author. Compiling the stories has been like reflecting on my journey as a writer.” 

It also showed Javeri how the themes that mattered to her have changed. “As a young immigrant woman in the UK, my concerns were that of the diaspora, of being boxed by my colour and religion,” says the author, adding, “And over the years, especially with the move back to Pakistan, the concerns are more about gender politics than identity politics. It’s interesting for me as a writer to see through this collection how my concerns have expanded from the personal into the political. I have moved from telling stories that I had heard, to telling stories no one wants to tell. The uniting theme being the stories we veil or hide, therefore the title Hijabistan or the land of the veiled.”

Most of the stories in Hijabistan talk of alienation, in a new country. When asked about it, Javeri agrees and says, “I moved to the West as a young married woman trying to make sense of the world around me. I made my way through studies and motherhood, at every step trying to work out who I was. It didn’t help that I didn’t fit the stereotype of a Pakistani Muslim woman! I broke every rule in the book, yet tried to stay true to my culture and this is when I realised that through my writing, I can shatter these stereotypes we have of the ‘other’. You can’t box all women by their religious or cultural identity. Just like all Muslims are not terrorists and not all terrorists are Muslim, not all Muslim women are submissive and not all fearless women are unreligious. This alienation and confusion, which later became replaced by determination and surety of purpose, has been a guiding force in my writing and will stay with me — always. I think it gives my writing a certain kick.”

Her stories are also about women who are not from the elite or upper class, who wear the garment out of their choice or because of social circumstances. Would it have been difficult to write about an upper class woman wearing a hijab, especially because of the whole conservative-liberal debate so common in South Asian societies?  

“I personally feel class or social status has little to do with wearing a hijab as religion is such an equaliser. When you bow before god, you are neither rich nor poor. In Pakistan, many upper class women wear a hijab. Being rich doesn’t necessarily mean you will be liberal and being poor doesn’t mean you will be religious. But my stories, fortunately or unfortunately, are not about women who wear the hijab, whether upper class or underprivileged. My stories are about women who are hiding their feelings, suppressing their desires. It doesn’t matter to me whether they wear the purdah or don a bikini. For me, the hijab is inside. It is metaphorical,” she answers.

Writing about females from different strata of the society, getting into their head, finding their voice can be bewildering. How did Javeri manage this? “Once I discovered the common theme of what the stories were about — the things we don’t want to talk about — it was easy to take on the persona of my characters. Although for me, to get under the skin of a character like Radha/Ruqaiya who is unapologetic about her choice as a sex worker, was very difficult because I too am a product of this society. However, I knew that if I want to do justice to my characters, I first have to get over my own inhibitions, my own bias and prejudice. And really, once I got to know Radha, her profession did not matter. It was her ballsy, fiery personality that hid a vulnerable interior that I wanted to capture on paper,” she adds. 

Hijabistan also tells us what women think of other women — a mother about her daughter, a professor about her student and so on. Somewhere we expected that the females would help each other, or be considerate. But that doesn’t happen here. Is this typical of South Asian/ Indian subcontinent society?

Javeri points out, “I think female friendships are just as complex as any other relationships. Yes there is Ruqaiya’s mother who wants to put her down for her choices (but she secretly admires her guts), then there is the protagonist in The Urge and her Aunt who have a beautiful intimate relationship. Same in A World without Men where the two women help each other out. What I wanted to show was that it is not necessary that women can only be good or only evil. They are human and respond differently to events and situations like men do. What annoys me is that we only portray women as either Sati-Savitri submissive sacrificing types or evil and jealous vamps like ‘Aurat aurat ki dushman hoti hain’. 

Another important thing I wanted to show was that while in the public space, our society is patriarchal, in the private sphere, it is the matriarch such as the mother, mother-in-law, grandmother who hold the reigns. Sadly, very often these women endorse patriarchy. Like in The Flyover or The Full Stop, or The Urge where the female character could have tried to provide their daughters/ daughters-in- law with a different experience but instead they repeat what they have suffered because they are afraid and feel powerless. In some ways, they feel threatened by those who refuse to act in the same old ways and this is something we need to talk about,” points out Javeri.

Besides alienation and racism that’s evident in Javeri’s writing in this book, she has also written about confused youth getting attracted to ISIS. Would she be writing more about this in future?

“Yes, because I think we live in post-truth age where we are bombarded with information but it is very difficult to sift knowledge and wisdom from the mindless information. We are constantly hit with conflicting ideologies. At such a time of fake news, I think literature helps us make sense of who we are. News has made us immune because every day our screens flash ‘x’ number of people killed in Syria or so many shot in Palestine — to the point that these deaths are just numbers to us. Yet when you read a novel like Story of Zahra about the Lebanese civil war — that is when you really feel the pain of being a refugee. So yes I want to write about these extremists ideologies to help young people make sense of the world around them through empathy,” she says.

Related News

​ ​