'Hijabistan' author Sabyn Javeri on why women need to write

The collection of short stories is 'not about a piece of clothing, but the conflicts, desires, and ambitions of the women under the veil'

Sabyn Javeri's 'Hijabistan' explores the 'complex' reality of the hijab through 16 short stories. Courtesy Harper Collins Publisher India
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There is a scene in the film Sex and The City 2 where Carrie and company are rescued from a mob of jeering men by a group of women in niqabs. What could four women from Manhattan possibly have in common with this group?

Carrie and her friends are overjoyed when these women pull off their discreet garb to reveal the latest collections from Dior, Gucci and Prada. It is through fashion that this group of characters with wildly differing life experiences find a common ground.

I was reminded of this heartwarming scene several times while reading Hijabistan, a collection of 16 short stories by Sabyn Javeri, a Pakistani writer and author of the ­bestselling novel Nobody Killed Her.

The reality of the hijab is so much more complex than people give it credit for

Set in the UK and Pakistan – countries that have been home to Javeri, 42 – the stories are populated by characters who range from age 13 to 50. Javeri uses the hijab as a metaphor for all the hidden truths that her protagonists are concealing, and the wars they are fighting within, away from the prying eyes of the world.

"The reality of the hijab is so much more complex than people give it credit for," Javeri tells The National.

"There is no one 'right' reason for wearing it. In Pakistan, there are women who wear it for social mobility, and to be able to move around freely. In the UK, it can be about asserting one's religious identity. Hijabistan is not about a piece of clothing, but the conflicts, desires and ambitions of the women under the veil."

Sabyn Javeri. Courtesy Sabyn Javeri
'Hijabistan' author Sabyn Javeri. She also released 'Nobody Killed Her' in 2017. Courtesy Sabyn Javeri

On that front, Javeri delivers. Her stories might be facile, but they are also expansive, with characters that cover a gamut of emotions that are universal to all women aware of being held back by the patriarchy, yet each experience is unique.

One story, The Urge, explores a 13-year-old kleptomaniac's fascination with the hijab and abaya. Her delight at the freedom the cover affords takes a sinister turn as she grows into a woman and tries to navigate the little space left for individuality, only after the demands of her gender have been fulfilled.

“It was, in some ways, like travelling in your own private marquee … How sorry I felt for the menfolk, whose freedom I had envied so much ­previously. Now I pitied them. Poor deprived souls,” writes Javeri.

In A World Without Men, a white professor of English literature finds her stereotypes about Muslim women and conservative ideas being constantly challenged by a veil-wearing student, Saira.

In one telling scene, the professor is shocked by the glimpse of fashionable boots under Saira's body-length veil.

“It was the stereotype of the submissive veiled woman who had no taste or choice of her own that had kicked in. I’d just assumed women who wore the veil also wore boring old sensible shoes. My bad. Who knew what went on behind those tents these women wore anyway?”

In The Full Stop, Assia's turmoil leaps off the pages as she grapples with the confusion of having her world split into a before and after – and not in a good way.  

The day she gets her first period, the realisation settles in that for girls like her, the period was not just a biological marker, it was a sociocultural one.

“She knew now why it was called the period. Because, like a full stop, this moment in a girl’s life put an end to all conversations,” writes the author.

Javeri’s prose is by turns acerbic and empathetic, with dashes of dark humour, as she takes us through the diverse worlds straddled by hijabis with conflicting privileges. Narratives of maids and mistresses, mothers and daughters, women who choose the hijab and those on whom it is thrust, all find space in Javeri’s universe. 

It was not planned that way, though. "I thought I was going to write a book about inspirational women who conquer all odds. But I realised that wouldn't be reflective of the larger truth," says Javeri. "I found myself more interested in capturing reality than being praised for being inspirational."

Even though the stories are not autobiographical, Javeri does borrow from her own ­experiences: mainly, growing up as the progeny of a religious mother and liberal father, in a family that had converted to Islam only two generations ago.

Javeri married at the young age of 21, and moved to the UK. Memories of her 15 years there inform many of her thoughts today.

"I went to Oxford on a scholarship for Muslim women. I could see that most people were surprised to see me in a dress. It wasn't compatible with their stereotypes about Muslim women," says Javeri. "Life in Karachi and London has taught me that as a society, we're obsessed with what women wear, and how we make clothes the central focus of her identity and the ­barometer of her morality.

“I wanted to explore the relationship between attire and identity, not pass judgement on the hijab with this book,” she adds. “Studying in London also made me aware of the shocking dearth of accurate representation of Muslim identity – especially Muslim women’s identity – in literature,” says Javeri. “As long as men are predominantly the only ones writing about us and for us, there will be no reliable narratives. Women must write, and so I wrote.”