Sabyn Javeri’s latest offering, Hijabistan, is a collection of 16 short stories that aim to shed light on the journeys of different women trying to make their own space within the confines of societal norms. The title suggests an attempt to use the hijab as a driving force to define the fact that it is more than just a piece of cloth. The cover illustration of the book is beautiful; a burka-clad woman flanked by vibrant and poignant artwork. It invites the reader in with lofty expectations; however, I approached it with guarded optimism as the theme — while extremely relevant — is also prone to stereotypical treatment of characters. Hijabistan delivers some hits, but a lot more misses.

The first few stories rely on sexual behaviour as a means of revolt. The protagonist of ‘The Date’ is a woman who is subjected to harassment in the workplace. She is propositioned by her superior in the form of gifts. Before accepting them, she reasons with herself, “The tune of Humsafar played in her mind and she was reminded of the drama’s overly pious and sacrificial heroine, but she dismissed the thought as she remembered the actress Mahira’s smoking habit — something she was unapologetic about despite public outrage. Mahira would do the same, the woman told herself as she picked up the box.”

Regardless of whether this is the author’s point of view or her protagonist’s, it is a superficial approach towards women. Not only is smoking a bad habit regardless of gender, but to equate a woman smoking with taking control of her life is trivialising the issue at hand. Workplace harassment is a serious problem and can no longer be treated in the clichéd form as it has been in this story. Javeri’s protagonist exposes age-old hypocrisies within our society. However, ironically, she falls into the very trap that she tries to escape from. By allowing her superior liberties — on what she considers are her terms — she feels that she is rebelling against societal norms when, in fact, she is only toeing the line of what society has already determined for women: stay quiet and conform. While this is true to reality, it is no excuse for ignoring the potential of this story.

Scattered between tales of simplistic women and misogynistic men, some stories leap from the pages and leave an impression long after they’ve been read

The author, who has the privilege of creative license, should have built her protagonist to echo the struggle and strength of those women who fight against office harassment every day, the women who do not yield to what is expected of them. The purpose of this story seems to be stating the obvious without addressing what is truly at stake: a woman’s right to equal treatment and opportunity in the workplace.

The women in the stories that follow come across as one-dimensional. There is the 13-year-old kleptomaniac belonging to a family crippled by poverty and stifled by an overtly narrow-minded uncle whose version of religion is only to be thrust upon the women of the house, whether they like it or not. Her reaction to being made aware of her place in the world is stealing knick-knacks and flashing men.

In another story, there is Radha — previously known as Ruqaiyyah — who shuns her name and background in exchange for the world’s oldest profession. A pre-med student, she chooses that profession in order to save up enough to get herself into college, but as the money starts rolling in, she lets go of her previous ambitions. She claims to find sex empowering. However, as the story progresses, it turns out that that is not the case.

Then, we meet Zara in ‘Malady of the Heart’. A young, soon-to-be-divorced mother, Zara moves back to Karachi from London following a separation from her husband and falls prey to the misguided notion, advocated by her mother, that divorce is the doom of any woman. Her mother takes her to a pir in order to rid Zara of the sickness in her heart. Zara tries to explain to her mother that there is no love in the relationship with her husband and refuses to live a life devoid of it. Here, finally, is a protagonist who is trying to take control of her life in the face of stubborn ideals. Zara spends most of the story introspecting on what has brought her to this point. At one point she tries to explain to her mother, “I have felt something you never will. There is a world out there. Much larger. There is more to life than being a wife or a mother ... I want to live life on my own terms.”

The reader is subsequently led to believe that the reason for the estrangement from her husband is because of Zara’s awareness of self. Predictably, the author uses the premise of an extramarital affair to ‘help’ Zara reach the conclusion that she wants to live life by her own rules. It is disappointing that women in these stories have short-sighted ambitions that seem to find realisation either through materialistic wants or sexual conduct. Those that attempt to rise above the ordinary are let down by the author’s reliance on, or introduction of, the male narrative. It is an easy trap to fall into when writing about women empowerment and it also oversimplifies the complex issue at hand.

‘The Adulteress’ follows a housewife who is satisfied with her life, but yearns for more when she rediscovers her passion for writing. But what should have been a story of how her life changes course, soon aligns itself with a man who helps her in the beginning but then, unsurprisingly, seeks more. The men in these stories are relatively all the same: cruel and narrow-minded, thus the women must go to war. Men must be dealt with by deceit, money or appealing to their carnal natures.

However, not all is lost. Scattered between these simplistic women and misogynistic men are some stories that leap from the pages and leave an impression long after they’ve been read. In ‘The Lovers’, the silently rebellious Aliya, daughter of immigrant parents, is hosting extended family who have just migrated from Pakistan to England. Thousands of miles away from her native country, she is still bound by “what would the relatives in Pakistan say!” Aliya struggles to keep her conservative relatives at bay, who shame her mother for her frail attempts at assimilation within British society.

Then there is the strong, wilful Saira in ‘World Without Men’. She is conflicted by her sexuality and creates a narrative that may help her either come to terms with, or escape, her quandary. The story is narrated from the point of view of a white British teacher who befriends Saira, veil and all. The women rely on each other to break stereotypes and gender disparities. At one point, the British woman muses about Saira’s veil, “Her black cloak felt like a shadow, constant and comforting, attached yet detached.”

In ‘Only in London’ the author uses excerpts from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to describe the British-Pakistani diaspora. Javeri’s strength as a writer lies in bringing the Pakistani immigrant experience to life. It is like a circus tightrope act where the young migrant — despite never having visited the country where the parents are from — has to carry the burden of being under scrutiny and is often questioned about her identity. The author’s prowess is obvious here; she does not ignore her central character — a young woman who is unsure, but guardedly excited about the prospect of her life ahead. She seems to be alone, but there is no despair in that loneliness. There is, in fact, a sense of liberation.

Javeri delivers her masterstroke at the very end of the book with ‘The Good Wife’, which looks at how love and faith are a woman’s weakness, but also her greatest strength. The protagonist is an extraordinary woman whose timidity belies her resolve. She is soft-spoken and quiet, but extremely aware of who she is and what she stands for. Her husband — and later on her community — is beguiled by how such a timid woman can have the resolve of an old oak tree that refuses to bend and stands tall in the face of gales and tempests, silent and forbearing. She is aware of her truth, her identity. She knows her reason for being and has logic by her side, yet she does not enforce it on those who question her; she dissuades them gently and with love. She is by far the most courageous woman in this anthology. The narrative is woven through the ebb and flow of the seasons, much like life. And much like life, it is unexpected in every way. This story tells the reader how things are often certainly not as they seem, how storms often hide in proverbial teacups.

“The girl decides to wear the hijab against the will of her husband. She believes the hijab represents modesty, peace and submission to Allah. It keeps her grounded. It protects her, defines her. She cannot understand why he would not want her to. But he is no longer there to resist it. And these days she is free to do as she pleases. No one to stop her, no one to question her. Remind her. And no one to love her. But the good woman is brave. Courageous. These days she has trained herself to wake up to precise images of normality.”

The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature

Hijabistan
By Sabyn Javeri
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9353029029
224pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 5th, 2019

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