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Review: Hijabistan by Sabyn Javeri

Sabyn Javeri’s Hijabistan, a collection of short stories give the reader a peek into the parallel universe of a hijabi

books Updated: Apr 19, 2019 21:11 IST
Lamat R Hasan
Lamat R Hasan
Hindustan Times
hijab,Karachi,ISIS
One spunky hijabi: Alia Bhatt in Gully Boy.(Alamy Stock Photo)
215pp, Rs 399; HarperCollins

The cover of Sabyn Javeri’s Hijabistan, a collection of short stories, is full of spunk: A confident woman, hidden from head to toe in an abaya, not just a hijab or headscarf, and who finds the long-flowing garment liberating. She is wearing make-up, funky rainbow sunshades and licking a red ice-lolly, with “femnst” scribbled on it, from under a titillating veil covering her half-open mouth. The abaya is her parallel universe, as the stars embossed on it suggest, even as she seemingly successfully navigates the real.

The blurb on the book endorses this sentiment: “A young kleptomaniac infuses thrill into her suffocating life by using her abaya to steal lipsticks and flash men”; “An office worker feels empowered through sex, shunning her inhibitions, but not her hijab”; “A young Pakistani bride in the West asserts her identity through the hijab”.

A promising read, you think. But not for long. Though the stories give the much-needed peek into the parallel universe of a hijabi, more often than not, the protagonists come across as helpless, instead of in control of their lives, as the blurb would have you believe.

The book opens with Javeri’s grandest story – the one that captures the fine nuances of the life of a (triumphant) hijabi. A middle-aged boss in Karachi is showing unusual interest in his young receptionist and she is beckoned into his cabin often. The routine normalises with small talk, advance salaries and the gifting of a silk headscarf as “beautiful girls” should be hidden from “prying eyes”. When he takes her to bed, he delivers a sermon on piety and the significance of removing pubic hair in Islam. The girl laughs at the irony, without any sense of guilt or remorse, choosing to rather think about how best she could use the money she has squeezed out of him. The girl’s parents are pleased to notice their daughter’s switch to the hijab and her embracing of the “right path”.

When a 13-year-old hijabi loses interest in stealing “fire-engine red lipsticks” from shops and hiding them under her tent-like abaya, she flashes a shopkeeper from her balcony. Flashing him becomes a norm till she is caught by her mother - not flashing - but making eye-contact with the shopkeeper. Her mother makes the most of the opportunity and forces the shopkeeper to marry her daughter. The 13-year-old spends the rest of her life locked up in his house, lest she flashes her ankle to an ant.

Javeri does a fine job of letting us into the little-known world of hijabis. Her stories have fabulous plots, her writing skills are extraordinary, but what is bothersome is that the stories are not balanced – they tilt towards the constricting dimension of the hijab, one has already been overdosed on. Her attempt to lighten up the stories with a dash of humour does not nullify this bleakness: “In this sea of black burkhas, I can’t tell who is who” – a brother tells his sister, when he goes to pick her up at the bus stop. Or wearing a hijab is “like travelling in your own private marquee”.

Author Sabyn Javeri ( Courtesy the publisher )

The first few stories do set the right tempo for the book. But the repetitiveness of the plots, such as the thrusting of the hijab on the onset of puberty, is irksome, and some stories just do not make the cut. What can indeed be liberating about a hijabi househelp who invites her boyfriend over to her madam’s house in the middle of the night and is caught making love on her madam’s favourite piece of furniture – the dining table? Or about two lovers caught spending time together in a public space by the cops, pretending to be married?

By the third or fourth story, the reader gets a fair idea of what connects the hijab-wearing protagonists – whether they are in the UK or in Pakistan -- which is where the book is set, and that they can do little to change their destinies.

There are heart-wrenching stories of hijabis in the UK, the land where one assumes they espouse feminism, have ice-lollies with “femnst” stamped on it, and have a better chance to break free than their counterparts in their country of origin. Aliya is a budding poet who is sent back to Pakistan as she might bring disgrace to her family. Saira has feelings for the same sex but chooses to relocate to Pakistan to have an arranged marriage even as her mother is against the idea.

In an attempt to uncover the many layers of the hijab that extend beyond the symbolic head cloth, Javeri delves deep. Some stories do hold promise, but just about. Zara returns home to her mother’s house in Lahore from London with her little son. Her mother imagines that Zara wants to end her marriage as her husband is a womaniser. However, it’s not Zara’s husband who has erred, it is she who is The Adulteress.

The hijabi women who populate Hijabistan – from the angelic to the sinister - show potential to conquer the universe, but, like Zara, are unable to ignore patriarchal injunctions or fight societal stereotyping. On the rare occasion, when they do put their foot down, they go the whole hog – google ISIS!

Read more: Review: Nobody Killed Her by Sabyn Javeri

Sixteen short stories down the line, some of which have been published before in literary journals and magazines, the dearth of stories of triumph pinches. Of hijabis choosing to wear the headscarf and making a dent in their careers or lives, without having to compromise and without feeling constricted by the garment.

When Javeri does attempt a story which is out-of-the-box, her portrayals are over-the-top – of kleptomaniacs, bisexuals and adulterers.

Javeri’s book is a let-down because she set the benchmark high for herself with her debut Nobody Killed Her, which documented the political journey of two headstrong and ambitious women.

The often unrealistic, regressive and caricaturish portrayal of hijabis - one might think they are in dire need of professional counsellors - is likely to put off sensitive readers, especially in a world where hijabs and hijabis are under perpetual scrutiny. It would have been uplifting to read spunky stories of women, the ones we hear about in real life, the ones who choose to wear the hijab and feel liberated.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

First Published: Apr 19, 2019 21:11 IST