In conversation with Sabyn Javeri
A collection of sixteen short stories, Hijabistan is Sabyn Javeri’s second book after her debut novel Nobody Killed Her. Through the metaphor of the veil, Javeri explores the unspoken, the unlived and, perhaps ironically, the unfettered worlds of girls and women rendered invisible by a piece of fabric which secludes them while at the same time enables them to imagine and put into motion intriguing and unexpected notions of desire and fulfilment.
Tender at times, shocking at others, Hijabistan seeks to explore the unspoken nuances of what it could possibly mean to live beneath a layer of propriety constructed out of a gossamer thin veil which conceals women’s bodies while revealing their internal landscapes that are at once alien and familiar. Javeri boldly pushes the debate on challenging women’s confinement as seen from both within and outside the veil.
Hijabistan, published by HarperCollins India, was launched at the Karachi Literature Festival early this month. Here, in a brief conversation, the writer shares her views on the topic of hijab as well as on how the book came about.
Q. In an environment of increasing suppression for many women, we also see that there is a part of Pakistani society, including women, which seems to be quite open with its sexuality. Why did you feel it necessary to write about female sexuality within the context of the hijab?
A. For me, the hijab in these stories is not the physical garment but a metaphorical expression. It is the veil between men and women, between women and women, between women and society and most often between women and their desires. That may be sexuality or privilege. Very few of the stories actually have the hijab as a garment central to their theme; [it is central to two stories titled] Coach Annie and The Good Wife [but even in these stories] it is, again, what the hijab represents. It is this metaphorical interpretation of the hijab that I was interested in.
Q. Do you think the ‘voice’ employed in the stories is authentic or is it compromised by your perception of the lives of women who you may not personally have known and, instead, just imagined? Also, if the stories are based on women and girls you have known, to what extent did you fictionalise their lives in order to draw out the conflicts inherent in the fact that most people are sexual beings and that, in a society such as ours, many are forced to suppress that sexuality?
A. I am not speaking for the subaltern. Of course, like every one of us, my perceptions are influenced by my own experience, class and gender. One can try and be authentic but, to paraphrase [Indian literary theorist and feminist critic Gayatri] Spivak, even anthropologists and sociologists often fail to do that.
Having said that, I also do not think fiction should be limited to ‘write what you know’. Imagination allows you to bring credibility to your work and dramatisation is a part of that effect. The stories [in Hijabistan], however, are not completely fictionalised either as I was working on a paper about the use of the veil as a metaphor in [pre-Partition progressive Urdu writer] Rashid Jahan’s fiction when the idea [to write the short stories] occurred to me. I began by collecting stories of women who wore the hijab and quickly realised it had little to do with piety. From there on I got thinking that the hijab does not need to necessarily translate into its physical meaning in the lives of the women around me. And that is when I took my research and dramatised it, eventually turning my findings into stories which had little to do with the original case studies.
Q. The Adulteress is one of the stories that possess a deeply authentic voice. To what extent do you relate to the protagonist in terms of the social class she appears to belong to? Is it easier to write about characters who resemble you? To what extent is the ‘imagining’ of the inner landscape of characters who feature in your stories fiction rather than a reportage of what is ‘known’ and ‘experienced’?
A. Deeply authentic would mean different things to different people but I am glad that you think it has an original or distinctive voice. I feel the most powerful tool a fiction writer has is her or his imagination. But I suppose many women writers and artists would relate to the frustration of the story’s protagonist at being creatively stunted, her talent underestimated and lost in the daily grind of everyday life.
In this story, the metaphorical hijab is concealing the woman’s talent, her creativity and most of all her self-belief. She is incapable of imagining an existence other than the one she is trapped in and writing stories allows her to lift that veil and experience another side to her personality, if only momentarily. In that sense, I think many women writers who do not come from privileged backgrounds may be able to relate [to the story]. But I do not think it is easier or harder to create a character who, like me, may be a writer and a mother [since] every story is a challenge in itself as much as it is pleasurable to write, oxymoronic as this may sound.
The writer is an actor, film-maker and human rights activist.
This article was published in the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.