No garment is perhaps as controversial as the headscarf. Many women choose to wear it—it signifies who they are and what their culture means to them. In an interview, Pakistani writer Sabyn Javeri said that women wear the hijab for different reasons—some to be able to move around freely, without scrutiny, and others to assert religious identity. There are also women who actually feel sheltered by the headscarf. But a large part of the society sees it as a patriarchal conditioning of women.
It is this idea of the headscarf and what it stands for—which is unique to each woman—that Javeri explores in her collection of short stories, ‘Hijabistan’. The 16 short stories also delve into what it means to be a woman—more specifically a Muslim woman searching for identity—and the hijab is used as a metaphor. Set across Pakistan and London, the stories aren’t only about a piece of clothing. They are about the desires and dreams of women in different circumstances and of what they are capable of doing.
‘The Adulteress’ is about a woman torn between her sense of duty and desires. ‘Under the Flyover’ is about a married couple sneaking in some private moments before heading home to their crowded flat. In ‘The Hijab and Her’, a Pakistani exchange student in America gets picked on by her professor during a discussion on post-colonialism which leads to her choosing a different path in life. In another story, a British Muslim girl is on her way to Syria, contemplating the jihad.
Some stories are also about the struggles an immigrant faces while trying to fit in and staying true to one’s roots. For instance, in ‘The Good Wife’ the protagonist tries to assert her identity by wearing a hijab and ‘Only in London’ is about reinvention of the self by not dressing as the Muslim religion mandates.
Javeri’s prose is smooth and her writing empathetic. None of the stories feel unnecessarily drawn out or pretentious. You will be able to relate with the many characters in the anthology whose age range from 13 to 50. Some stories might feel a little off but you are never bored or disappointed.
Rather, these are stories that make you think—about women who have kept quiet for far too long and all the sacrifices they are forced to make, for their families, in the name of religion, and simply because they are women.
Hijabistan is Javeri’s second book. Her first, ‘Nobody Killed Her’, published in 2017, was a fictionalized tale of a female prime minister’s assassination.