When Pakistani writer Sabyn Javeri set out to write Hijabistan, she thought it would be a collection of stories of heroic women who wore the hijab. However, as she started to write, she realised the veil was much more than a garment. In an interview with the Indian Express she said: “Many readers on social media are agitated that this has not turned out to be a collection of strong empowered women who are changing the world in a hijab. It is that. But it is also something more.”
For Javeri, the veil has been transformed from a symbol of either male oppression or the assertion of the Muslim identity to the stories women tucked away and never spoke about. She found that beyond the weight of the veil there are other stories that women find too provocative to discuss. In order to bring those to light, Javeri created an entire world of short stories for them: Hijabistan. Or “The Land of the Veiled.”
In the first story of the collection, The Date, a young woman in Karachi is gifted a head-scarf by her married boss. “A beautiful girl like you should be hidden away from prying eyes,” he tells her. Later, they get together, behaving like romantic clandestine lovers devoid of any worries. Yet both of them are wrong about each other. He is wrong because he believes she is pious, that the head-scarf has transformed her into a virgin who prays five times a day. She is wrong because she believes he actually cares about her.
The affair ends as soon as it begins and she takes the bus back home waiting for her brother to fetch her from the bus-stop. “In this sea of black burkhas, I can’t tell who is who,” grumbles her brother. And this is where the veil becomes handy. Not just to hide one’s body, but to hide away an entire identity. One can be anything beneath it. A kleptomaniac who flashes shopkeepers, a wife and mother, a romantic story-writer, a coach, an adulteress, a divorcee, a whore, or even a terrorist.
If one grows up a woman, one is told to accept certain limitations of their sex. In Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, all the daughters are told by their mothers: “It is a woman’s lot to suffer.” No one really questions this, especially if they grow up in traditional households of south Asia and south-east Asia. In The Urge, the second story from this collection, the protagonist gets married to a jealous man who can’t bear the thought of his wife interacting with the world outside. As a result she is locked up. Her mother tells her: “He loves you too much. He doesn’t want any other man to cast eyes on you.” Another variation of that old “it is a woman’s lot to suffer.”
The protagonist, knowing she has no way out, gives birth to a girl only to kill her child instantly. She cannot protect the girl from the limitations of her sex. But she can make sure the child never has to grow up to be a woman. To not be born into the world just to suffer.
Documenting real life
Javeri too isn’t questioning as much as she is revealing. In 16 short stories that span from Pakistan to London, she wants to show a different side of the hijab. She wants people to know that women who choose to wear the hijab aren’t necessarily “submissive doormats.” But that things are still bad for women is an undoubted fact. In her dedication, she writes “For Ami, please forgive me...” as if the book is both necessary to write but something to feel guilty about.
The stories themselves can sometimes be more of discourse than narrative. In The Full Stop, a young girl who’s grown up on a steady diet of Judy Blume novels gets her first period. What she is thinks would be a day of glorious joy and a celebration of womanhood becomes a day of shame and hiding. Javeri writes: “In her story, menstruation was a thing to be hushed, veiled and concealed – not celebrated. It was the moment when honour was replaced by shame, friendship with humiliation, and love by fear. For girls in her part of the world, pads were concealed in brown paper bags like counterfeits, films on the subject were banned, and the denial of a natural state was encouraged. They were called impure, napak and unclean.”
In this way, Javeri often strays away from story-telling to documenting real-life, subverting the old writer’s lesson of “show, don’t tell.” However, this is both a shortcoming and an achievement. There is honesty in her fiction rather than a sense of concoction. She is narrating the lives of real women and often their concerns triumph over stylistic ones.
Javeri is perhaps the first writer to proudly say, “judge my book by its cover.” Illustrated by Samya Arif, the tongue-in-cheek orange cover holds the image of a woman covered from top to bottom in black, wearing rainbow-colored sunglasses and sucking on a melting orange popsicle that says FEMNST. It’s the kind of eye-popping cover that makes one want to instantly purchase the book and to turn its pages quickly.
But perhaps what’s most exciting about the image is that it betrays the intention of the author entirely, without leaving the cover up to the reader’s interpretation. For me, Javeri’s collection is important because it describes the fight for feminism today just by this image and the variety of heroines featured in her stories.
Feminisms in action
Third wave feminism is often criticised for its lack of cohesion, whereas first wave feminism began as the suffrage movement and second wave feminism stood for the sexual and reproductive rights of women. Third-wave, or even fourth-wave feminism as some might say, aims to tackle many issues like the workplace glass ceiling, reclaiming femininity, abortion laws, etc. while also bringing into its fold the rights of people of colour and LGBTQI rights, among others, and abolishing the inherent inequality based in class structures.
Although there is no definitive version on what the women today are fighting for, third wave feminism continues to be strong, using the internet tools for movements such as the Me Too. It is able to highlight the individual while also fighting for the rights of a group. In the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, based on the fight of second-wave feminists, the filmmakers ended with footage from a feminist rally from the third wave, where women from different backgrounds took the streets to fight for equality.
The daughters of the second wave inherited the distorted image of the feminist as a bra-burning, man-hating committed spinster, and what they seek to do is to make this definition evolve rather than brandish it as an identity. This is exactly what Javeri is doing by showing us the hijab as a garment that is far more than an institution of patriarchy or the supposed lack of liberation of Muslim women.
It is to say that the burkha-clad woman is as much an image of feminism as is Rosie the Riveter, the We Can Do It icon of the Second World War. It is also to assert that feminism has its shortcomings and that most women are far from liberation, but that it doesn’t make the movement any less glorious or important. Hijabistan is a nod to the cumulative efforts of all the women who have tirelessly worked to widen the image of the feminist and to work against the bias of both kinds of people – those who force you to wear the veil and those who forcefully snatch it away from you.
Hijabistan, Sabyn Javeri, HarperCollins India.