Sabyn Javeri’s Hijabistan briskly ushers the reader into the land of the veiled for a voyeuristic peek into the intimate lives of those who are supposedly cowering behind the layers of fabric imposed on them by religion and patriarchy. Told over the span of 16 succulent stories, the book dedicates itself to the task of stripping away stereotypes pertaining to Muslim women who are often viewed as submissive victims of centuries of brutal repression, wretchedly resigned to the deprivation of their agency. In recent times, there has been much controversy over the traditional headscarf, or the hijab. For many, it is an unpalatable symbol of patriarchal conditioning and religious fanaticism, while there are others who insist that a woman’s right to cover herself is every bit as sacred as her right to bare.
Javeri comes out swinging strongly in favour of the latter which may not go down too well with some. The brand of feminism, showcased in this book, bursts from beneath the tent-like garment and is delightfully distinctive. The idea of empowerment here does not necessarily conform with the overarching impression of the same held by the fiercer firebrands of the feminist cause. And yet, make no mistake, Hijabistan for the most part does champion women’s rights with gusto, empathy and balance.
Ultimately it all comes down to the stories. And the things they reveal. Or conceal. As Javeri puts it, ‘We are all made up of stories. The stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves and more importantly, the stories we hide. Deep inside.’ A young girl refuses to be cowed down by expectations or assumptions and has no qualms about using her body to spice up her otherwise mundane existence, especially since she can expect gifts and cash in exchange. Radha uses her body too in a quest for financial and emotional freedom. She does get these and a lot more than she bargained for but is determined to do what it takes to survive. There is the girl with the irrepressible urges that refuses to be stymied within the suffocating confines of the hijab and rigidly enforced oppression. She satiates these with thievery, flashing and a stolen moment of forbidden intimacy which leads to a tightened leash and an explosion of supressed need.
A married woman commits adultery and a student explores a forbidden avenue of sexuality. Coach Annie is an inspiring figure who teaches football to strapping lads who initially look askance at the Asian who refuses to lose her headscarf but are eventually won over by her grit and gumption.
A majority of the stories are juicy and leave you with a lingering aftertaste but they aren’t all gems. ‘The Full Stop’ is a trite tale of a girl who gets her period and gets all bent out of shape because her father, a doctor, is embarrassed by it. ‘The Hijab and Her’ is a similarly unimpressive account of a young girl who inexplicably during the course of a lecture gives up on graduate school applications in favour of ISIS. These sour notes notwithstanding, the land of the veiled warrants a visit, if only to gain a proper sense of perspective in a world that is increasingly being stripped of nuance.