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Semeen Ali
Semeen Ali

Sabyn Javeri
Short Stories
Harper Collins. 2019
ISBN: 978-93-5302-902-9
Pp 215 | 399

Problems of burkha-clad Muslim women

‘Does your mum wear the hijab?’ I asked as we entered my flat.
‘Would it make her a better mum if she did?’
‘What an odd question,’ I responded.
‘So was yours.’

Hijabistan is a land of women- where a lot of stereotypes get bombarded and shredded to pieces. The protagonists of this collection of stories are not the usual timid ones that are repressed or whose voices have been stifled. They have a mind of their own- and they make it known to those around them. Any attempts to bring them ‘back to line’ are thwarted with the strong characters that Javeri fills the book with. The women come from various strata but the commonality that binds them is that - they are all Muslim women.

It is interesting to read a book on contemporary Muslim women coming out at a time when Islamophobia has reached its zenith and continues to hold that position. What we forget in the process are the voices that are struggling to be heard – it’s a man world, so they say, but what about the voices that surround this world – those voices stand at the periphery and yet are powerful enough, even threatening the very core of what constitutes this world. Strong enough to be kept under control and to be cloaked. But even that idea has been critiqued in the book.

As Margaret Atwood observed – In the end, we'll all become stories – and isn’t that true? While we exist, we are creating our own stories – the ones we tell and the ones we hide.  The ones we tell are flawed, edited version of the self that we project on to the world for reasons known best to us but the stories that are fascinating are the ones we hide. Our favourite Mr. Hyde in a world of Dr Jekylls. The story of a woman called Radha who wonders if there exists something stronger than emotions. Called an old whore, Ruqaiyah Begum aka Radha prefers her new name that she gave herself. Away from the orders of an old world that she left behind long ago- a name carries with it the weight of generations. Radha decides to shun that weight and make a world of her own—of course, that comes with its own set of problems that Javeri peers into through this story. Where one man mauls her – another offers her sympathy and a balm to soothe those wounds but in the end does not shed his perception of her as a whore. The endless cycle that one gets trapped in, if one choose a path of one’s own.

If Ruqaiyah Begum changes her name to Radha, we have here a story of a maid whose name is changed to something that sounds closer to her position in the society – from Tarannum to Tooba.

‘ …seeing the suspicious look in the eyes of her new mistress, for surely her kind didn’t think poor people could have the imagination to name their children so creatively.’

The black and white divisions that we hold on to- that we consciously or subconsciously adhere to have been opened up for questioning in this book. As one of the characters in the books reminisce about the good old days of cinema when everything was cleanly divided into  good or bad- the roles of the women easily defined by the ones who were the heroines and the ones that would always remain the vamps. A shade of grey is what confuses people. Isn’t it easy to just put them into already created moulds than create news one and smash the old ones on a daily basis?

But simplicity is deceptive as the short story – A World without Men – brings it out. The harangue that has been meted out towards the idea of a hijab gets contested in this story when Saira says that she feels powerful wearing a hijab. For inside the hijab is her own little world, away from the eyes of the outsiders. If one thinks about this idea, then one realizes that the entire idea against the concept of hijab or purdah has centred around how it stifles women, how it has been used as a means to subjugate women but does anyone ask the women in question what they want – how they feel? Undeniably the indoctrination starts early but does it necessarily take away a woman’s agency to engage with the world? The story has you questioning the very concepts against the hijab that we have dearly held onto out of convenience. Another story on a similar vein has the protagonist considering the hijab as her second skin; how she does not wear it because of anyone nor is she hiding from people. She wears it for herself. It is, as she calls it, her identity.  She points out how she is not oblivious to other’s discomfort when they have to share a seat with her on the bus or in a public place. She knows how a hijab comes with its set of stereotypes and how it is looked down upon by others who hold the general view regarding it. It is while wrapped up with the question of the veil, that one forgets to question the other things; hidden away safely and as Javeri points out at one of them through another story, the invisibility of a menstruating girl.

‘For girls in her part of the world, pads were concealed in brown paper bags like counterfeits, …and the denial of a natural state was encouraged.’

But where Saira feels powerful, the girl in another story realizes that no matter what one wears, there is always a price to pay for being a woman. And although her boss extracts sexual favours from her, in the end he does not hesitate to point out her religious duties.

‘On the bus, she camouflaged herself amidst the other veiled women, all shrinking into themselves, willing their bodies to become invisible and unfeeling to the pinching and groping that no number of hijabs and burkhas seem to deter.’

Javeri shows the two sides of the coin and how!

With Buddhi in another story reading Fifty Shades of Grey and her clueless husband thinking of it to be a colouring book to a mother considering women writing poetry akin to being courtesans. There are a number of issues that emerge as one goes through the book – delicately put and at times in one’s face. Javeri’s characters have a voice of their own with their creator keeping herself at a good distance to let them blossom on their own. Then and again the characters are given choices in their lives and the question that looms at large is why can’t we have best of both the worlds? Why does it become necessary to choose? Can one refuse to choose?

Thematically, the book nails it and the writer is aware of the pitfalls that come with opening up the Pandora’s Box. The stories do not have happy endings nor do they end on a tragic note. They end on a matter of fact way of how things move along. How there are no finalities to discussions on topics like purdah. And as the brother of a woman, waiting for her at a bus stop in a story comments –

‘You all look the same,’ he grumbled. ‘In this sea of black burkhas, I can’t tell who is who.’

I leave you with this suggestion: Read the book to understand how complicated the relationship of a Muslim woman (not all of them but a majority of them) has with the burkha; and with their sense of self that is tied up with their religion.  


Issue 84 (Mar-Apr 2019)

Book Reviews
  • Ambika Ananth: ‘When Seeing is Believing
  • A Annapurna Sharma: ‘So I Let It Be
  • Atreya Sarma U: ‘The Heist Artist
  • Bhumida Sharma: ‘The Ramayana Secret
  • GSP Rao: ‘The Legend of Krishna
  • Mala Pandurang: ‘The Scent of Mogra’
  • Priyadarshi Patnaik: ‘Where Gods Reside – Sacred Places of Kolkata
  • Sagarika Dash: ‘The Best Asian Short Stories
  • Sapna Dogra: ‘Jallianwala Bagh – Literary Responses in Prose & Poetry
  • Semeen Ali: ‘Hijabistan’
  • Teresa Tudu: ‘My Father’s Garden