'Why are we obsessed with how women dress?'

Why are we obsessed with how women dress?

Sabyn Javeri, author of Hijabistan, on the complex - and often, politically charged - debates that the hijab has raised in recent years

By Sukayna Kazmi

Published: Fri 7 Jun 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 7 Jun 2019, 2:00 AM

Today, the hijab is deemed to be more than just a covering; it symbolises empowerment. However, buried in the depths of some societies, are stories of women who are oppressed by the same garb. Sabyn Javeri is an author, academic and mother (albeit she's quick to add: "not in that order"), who seeks to bring to light the horrors such women face through her new book called Hijabistan.
Ask her what it's about and she chooses to tell us what it's not about: the hijab as a garment. Instead, she uses it as a "metaphorical interpretation of what it means to veil our deepest and darkest desires". Underlying all the stories is a uniting theme, she says - "that of stories we want to hide". Edited excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about the cover. Why did you choose it and what is its story?
The cover is by Pakistani artist Samia Arif. The publishers suggested a Daughters of Arabia- kind of cover of a woman in a veil with heavy eye makeup, but I felt that did not represent the stories I wanted to tell.
Are the stories in Hijabistan true or inspired by events that occurred in real life?
All the stories are based on real events, dramatised and fictionalised to protect identities. I interviewed women in jails, orphanages, and those working as domestic help or sex workers to get these stories. I was not interested in the stories of the upper class privileged women or celebrities who wore the hijab out of choice, because the world can already see that.
What was the thought process behind naming your book Hijabistan?
There are stories we tell others and stories we tell ourselves. Then there are stories we never want to acknowledge. Stories we veil deep inside our hearts. Those are the stories I was interested in and, therefore, the title. Hijab means to hide and 'tan' means place - 'Hijabistan' means a veiled place.
A lot of Muslim hijabi celebrities say that wearing the hijab empowers them and that it doesn't stop them from reaching their highest potential. However, some stories in your book depict the hijab in a different light. Why is that?
What you are saying is reflected in my book in stories like Coach Annie, in which a female football coach finds the hijab empowering and refuses to take it off even though the headgear is not allowed on the field.
The stories that depict the hijab otherwise are because that too is a reality. For the longest time, women's dress codes have been politically motivated and exploited; I wanted to highlight this in Hijabistan.
Of course, the hijab is not always forced. But it is in societies that are not Muslim-dominated that the hijab becomes a symbol of religious identity and can, therefore, be seen as empowering, because you are making a conscious effort to assert your sense of religious identity by wearing it. In short, it is by choice.
Sadly, that is not true everywhere, and I think to pretend that forced veiling and female subjugation does not still exist in certain parts of the world is to be equally naive. In many societies, women are forced to not just wear the veil, but are barred from gaining education, jobs or exercising any agency at all. For someone in the free world from a privileged society, to dress how they want and get an education may be their right. But for many girls in remote parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, it is not a right, but a privilege. I have tried to look at both situations in my book.
For people who aren't as knowledgeable on these matters, do you think that portraying the 'reality' of the stories as you have can give them the wrong message by causing them to believe the hijab is a barrier or the cause of many problems, such as lack of freedom?
The point of fiction is to start conversations and debates, and to create awareness. At least, that's how I feel about my fiction. But what is important to differentiate is that this is not a report on the state of women, but a collection of short stories.
I wish I could only write positive, happy stories, but there are usually two sides to everything. When I first started to write this book, believe me, I too wanted to find those 'Burkha Avenger'-kind of uplifting stories about women in hijabs who take on the world. However, when I started researching these narratives, I realised the reality of the hijab in Muslim-dominated societies is far more nuanced.
Women don't always wear the hijab to assert their spirituality. Depending on their class, in these societies, they wear it for social mobility, for anonymity, for protection from the male gaze, because of peer pressure and all sorts of other reasons.
The sad truth is that in many parts of the world, we judge women's morality by how they dress. For me, it is not a question of whether the hijab is oppressive or empowering. The bigger question is: why are we obsessed with how women dress?
Why do you believe that feminism and women's empowerment are both important talking points in this day and age?
For me, women's empowerment and feminism are not about women taking on more and more and proving themselves, as 'Women can have it all' campaigners would have us believe. For me, real feminism is about a man's role evolving within the domestic sphere, so women don't have to kill themselves trying to be superwomen who have to juggle it all. I'd like to see more women in the boardroom and parliament and more men in the kitchen and as primary carers.
Are there any writers you look up to?
Many. Ismat Chughtai and Rashid Jahan were writing about female sexuality, the veil, marital rape and many other women's issues as far back as 1930 and getting flak for it. Their work gives me hope that I'm not alone in stirring up topics that people want to brush under the carpet. I also admire Nicole Krauss for the complexity of her craft and Virginia Woolf for the timelessness of her prose.
What message would you like to give to the young women? And how can men be more supportive of the women in their lives?
For women, I'd say don't be afraid of being judged. What you think of yourself is far more important than anyone else's approval. I think knowing that validation has to come from inside your own self is much more empowering than anything else.
Men and women both have to support each other. Just like there are many women who want to work outside the home, there are many men who don't want the burden of being a provider. I think both genders have to break out of their respective stereotypes and learn to be accepting of each other.

More news from