An important and intriguing collection of short stories is what Sabyn Javeri offers to you in her collection - Hijabistan - a book you need to pick up for International Women's Day 2019. As the name suggests, Hijabistan navigates the complex lives of women living in the Hijab. Some embrace it as a part of themselves and some are thrust with it. Some feel sheltered by it while some are crushed under the weight of the Hijab. For Women's Day, we got our hands on a copy of Hijabistan and a chance to talk to the author, Sabyn Javeri. She was kind enough to answer some questions.
We know you hate the term 'Woman Writer', but as a woman writer, what are the challenges you've faced when it comes to getting your work published?
"Yes, I hate it because no one ever says male writer! Fortunately, in our part of the world, we have a very rich history of women’s writing starting from Ismat Chugtai to Mahasweta Devi to Arundhati Roy. Not to mention that publishing is no longer a male-dominated field in India or in Pakistan. So the publishing journey was not too traumatic, however, the bias or prejudice came through from readers and reviewers who questioned my ability to write about politics, being the male domain that it is. My imagination was discounted, I felt. No one ever says to a man-writer about how can they write about a woman’s world but when a woman tries to write about things other than romance or arranged marriage, her credibility is often challenged."
Hijabistan is quite a shift from Nobody Killed Her. The former is a collection of short stories of regular women and the latter is about a woman in power, yet both books are born out of helplessness that women face. What prompted you to write about these women?
"I wrote Nobody Killed Her when I was living in the UK and was looking back with a macro lens. I wrote Hijabistan while living in Pakistan and observing everyday life with a microscope. I realised that these purdah observing women, however oppressed, were not victims but survivors. There were two sides to a story. The domestic help, the sex workers, no matter how destitute they seemed - all were fiery women who were fighting back. My view of the subaltern changed when I saw them up and close and I knew I had to write about these women who in some way were far more powerful than those born to power and privilege."
The veiled women in Hijabistan are not the average ones. They are complex in their own ways - even empowering to a point. Are these stories based on women you've met?
"These are based on true stories although I have dramatised and fictionalised to make them more interesting and protect identities. You are right - they are complex beings. Too often we (especially male writers through their male gaze) oversimplify female characters making them one dimensional by putting them at either ends of a saint-or-sinner spectrum. They are either the heroines or the vamps, never grey, never human. It’s this complexity that makes us all human that I wanted to explore in Hijabistan."
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Since this is going to be a Women's Day feature, could you tell us some of your favourite authors from the same gender? Your favourite pieces of literature from these authors?
"I love The Quilt by Ismat Chugtai and cannot believe that she was writing about female sexuality back in the early twentieth century when, even today, we are afraid to touch taboo topics. I also admire Arundhati Roy for her courage to take on the world, to stand up for her beliefs and give voice to our deepest concerns with her words. Lorriane Moore’s Self-Help, a short story collection, helped me greatly when I was going through a tough phase in my life recently and it made me understand why women write: to start a debate about issues that snag at our heart but we are too afraid to voice. More power to them!"
Reading women-centric literature is one of the most powerful ways in which the world can change. The onus of women's literature is to characterise a group of people marginalised by history and to explore, through their writing, their lives as they maintain a unique sociopolitical space within a culture. If you're looking to pick up a book that'll help you understand the complexities of women on International Women's Day, Hijabistan by Sabyn Javeri it is.