The cover illustration of Hijabistan, featuring a burka-clad woman in rainbow-coloured glasses, bright pink lipstick and a septum piercing visible through her translucent hijab, is not just striking. It allows you a teasing sneak peek into the world hidden beneath the veils of millions of Muslim women — which author Sabyn Javeri meticulously unwraps through her short story collection.
Set across Pakistan and London, Javeri’s Hijabistan takes readers on a stirring journey through the veiled world of a modern Muslim woman. In an increasingly polarised world, Javeri’s latest collection of short stories comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Through 16 stories, some of them written as early as 2009, Javeri traverses the multitude of experiences and identities that make up a Muslim woman’s life, with plots ranging from a young kleptomaniac who infuses thrill into her otherwise repressed existence by stealing lipsticks and flashing men through her burka, to a married woman in Pakistan indulging in an illicit affair and a wife in London who decides to embrace the hijab out of her own choice and strong faith.
In this way, the narrative avoids getting trapped in the binary of strong/weak, good/bad tropes that women characters are often tailored to fit into. The overused dichotomy of the modern, liberal woman who is freed of her hijab, versus the meek, submissive, conservative woman who is a victim of her hijab is shattered, opening up diverse lives that lie tucked away beneath the veil.
If some of the stories like An Irreplaceable Loss and Fifty Shades at Fifty are about “powerful women” who express and explore their sexuality despite their veils, many others like The Good Wife and Coach Annie have female protagonists who are empowered by the hijab, through which they assert their identity, making them strong, round characters with complex internal conflicts.
The narrative, while portraying the lives of Muslim women, takes extra care to not universalise and stereotype the struggles of the subaltern woman. The Adulteress, one of the stories in the collection, paints a raw picture of its protagonist’s intense internal battle, torn between societal norms, morals and her own desires.
And while Hijabistan may be a collection of stories primarily about burka-clad women, this conflict is one that is all too familiar for women universally, cutting across religion, class and other such differences. The conflict remains unresolved in many of the stories whose open endings leave you with an unsettling feeling that lingers on.
“With the veil blocking her face, even if I tried, I could not see what she was seeing.” - Malady of the Heart, Hijabistan.
Author: Sabyn Javeri;
Publisher: HarperCollins India;
Rs 399.00; 216 pages