Tales of the hijab

catherine rhea roy | Updated on July 05, 2019 Published on July 05, 2019

Insurmountable: Javeri’s characters come close to redeeming their lives but, disappointingly, they are put back in their place by their own conditioning   -  ISTOCK.COM

Author Sabyn Javeri’s collection of short stories focuses on women who wear the hijab, but refrains from interrogating the associated political and cultural baggage

Given the provocative title and cover art, one might imagine that Hijabistan, a collection of short stories by Sabyn Javeri, would demystify the hijab, or the headscarf, and bring us closer to it and the women who wear it. The blurb is a declaration that promises to “explore the lives of women crushed under the weight of the all-encompassing veil and those who feel sheltered by it”. However, the book is a less-than-desirable compromise of its claims and our expectations. Very soon, we make our peace with the fact that these are simply stories about women who also just happen to wear hijabs.

Hijabistan Sabyn Javeri HarperCollins India Fiction ₹399


Javeri is a professor of creative writing who splits her time between London and Pakistan. She has won awards for her fiction, has been featured in literary journals and anthologies, and is best known for her debut novel, Nobody Killed Her, a pacy, political thriller that builds on shades of noir and courtroom drama. It is the kind of book that one might enjoy but never recommend. Hijabistan, on the other hand, meets a lesser fate. It is the kind of book that one might regret.

The Date is a strong opening — the story of a woman in the workplace having an affair with her married boss. The two carry on over innocent coffee dates and trips to the mall that, before long, shift to a bedroom. When they have sex, the single laughable thought running in his head is ‘This is not her first time’, or his shock at the healthy crop of pubic hair that she hides beneath the piety of her abaya, the full-length outer garment worn with the hijab. However, the show of strength and character in this story progressively weakens, and Javeri does the great disservice of turning most of her protagonists — like the reckless young girl in The Urge or the unfortunate Ruqaiyat in Radha — into hapless, lifeless puppets.

The author does not explore the political and cultural baggage the hijab carries, or even the conflict of the garment as a symbol of patriarchal oppression versus that of a woman choosing to wear it as a way of expression. On the contrary, her protagonists are patrons of an annoyingly defeatist brand of feminism, with notions that are reductive and superficial at best. They are weepy and woebegone, they are dispassionate quitters who lack fire, anger, and are rather complacent in the choke-hold of the abaya. Often, they come close to redeeming their lives but, disappointingly, they are put back in their place by their own conditioning. At this point, the last shred of empathy we may have had has vaporised to impatience by the misleading cover of the book — featuring a pouty, edgy woman in a burkha eating an icepop that’s boldly labelled ‘feminist’.

Neither the sassy, strong-willed Zara from The Malady of the Heart nor the bright scholar Nasira from The Hijab and Her are given their due. One character is wrung out of shape and forced into a decision that goes against the grain of her spirit while the other is caricatured into a youngling prone to reactive behaviour. In The Adultress, the protagonist is a housewife who leads an exciting double life as a writer stirring with lust for a journalist and poet. She is riddled with the guilt of having felt the thrill of passion and of being a successful writer, even as the reader is hoping that she would just revel in it.

There are moments when the author’s cheek and screwball sense of humour shine, like in Under the Flyover — the all-too-familiar story of a married couple trying to catch a window of time that they can spend together before they have to go back home. Javeri builds exciting premises and enticing characters, but then we suffer the pitfall of banal observations that are anchored by contrived, gimmicky writing.

In The Full Stop, Assia comes of age, with almost comical fortuity, while reading children’s author Judy Blume. In the wake of her first menstrual period, her mother sets out diktats like the measured fire of a semi-automatic — don’t touch, don’t pray, don’t bathe — and her father recoils in embarrassment. Assia passively observes that she knows 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. Period”. And that’s that.

The popularity of Nobody Killed Her is testament to the fact that Javeri can keep a reader engaged. In Hijabistan, however, what could have been a chance to tell well-researched, genuine, varied stories of South Asian Muslim women and girls has turned into an enormous missed opportunity. Javeri could have showed us how women celebrate the hijab, told us about women who detest it, and introduced us to those who ripped it to shreds with a pair of kitchen scissors. Publishers and commissioning editors with discerning taste could have given us stories we deserve — books that do justice to the narratives of brave and bold women, of minorities, the battles they fight and, more important, those they conquer.

Catherine Rhea Roy is a writer based in Delhi

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Published on July 05, 2019
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