Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.

Maryam Azam is an Australian-born Muslim millennial who lives and works in Western Sydney. She graduated with Honours in Creative Writing from Western Sydney University and holds a diploma in the Islamic Sciences. She is a recipient of the WestWords Emerging Writers’ Fellowship.

The Hijab Files – Synopsis
Maryam Azam’s debut collection takes the significance of the hijab as its focus of attention. Though shamed and angered by the prejudice towards Muslims the scarf arouses, Azam is also aware of its sensuality and allure, and the power and protection it offers. In ‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’, ‘Miss Khan Takes off her Hijab’ and ‘Places I’ve Prayed’, she reflects on the rich possibilities of the scarf, the moral values it embodies, and the commitment required to maintain these values in a secular society. In the second section, ‘Wallah Bros’, she examines the tensions young Muslims experience when negotiating the technology of modern dating. The poems in the final section, ‘The Piercing of this Place’, are alert to the presence of spiritual forces in the world, and open on to the larger dimensions of time and space, to mystery and the prospect of death. Azam’s style is simple and direct, and informed with humour: it frames as it reveals, asserting the dignity of ritual and observance in everyday life.

Photo of a Maryam sitting on a park bench

The Hijab Files consists of stories of wearing the hijab in Australia, modern dating as a Muslim, and spirituality. What was it about the lyric poem that made it the form you chose for these stories?

The brevity, intimacy and freedom of poetry is what attracted me to it as a form. I didn’t think of myself so much as working with lyric poetry but rather free verse poetry – though the first person POV and the focus on personal experience certainly aligns itself with lyric poetry. I was more conscious of purpose rather than form. I feel like form is less relevant now than it might have been in the past and that writing practice nowadays is about shaping form to suit your intent.

Some of the poems speak of the empowerment of wearing a scarf, the way it can make you feel protected and untouchable. Can you comment on this aspect of the hijab?

Putting on my hijab feels like donning a mask or armour – it is my public persona and it feels different to the person I am at home or in those intimate spaces where I take it off.  When I enter a space, the hijab puts my physical attractiveness on the back-burner and foregrounds my personality and intellect.

For the most part, I find myself treated with respect by Muslim and non-Muslim men alike. Of course it’s a shame that it takes dressing a certain way to be treated with decency but the experiences of sexual harassment that women experience on the street in their day to day life just don’t happen to me. And when I do notice a leer, I feel secure in the knowledge that they really can’t see much of me.

You often use humour in your poetry, referring to the ‘bad scarf days’ or the way a hijab wearer can feel like a ‘ninja’. How do you find the process of writing with humour, of seeing the funny side of culture and religious practices?

Humour is essential for processing, understanding and accepting the challenges of life and it can be empowering and normalising. It is also far too absent in representations of Muslim women. How often do you see a smiling headscarfed woman in the media? Fear, submission and oppression dog representations of Muslim women. Humour is a way to undermine those Orientalised images.

You often touch on the way Muslim women have to confront the decision whether to wear or not wear a hijab, and the cultural, social and political implications that flow from that. Can you comment on this?

Being a woman is hard. Being a hijab-wearing woman is even harder because you bear the brunt of Islamophobic sentiment with the visibility the hijab brings. Muslim women who don’t wear hijab often face judgement from their community for not doing so while women who do often face judgement from their community for doing so. It can feel like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. There are also class undertones to hijab. Wearing hijab can come across as being middle-class and backward and not wearing hijab can seem modern and upper-class. Moreover, not every woman feels it necessary to wear hijab as part of her practice of her religion. Muslims are not a homogeneous group though it often comes across that way in the media and literature in English.

Cover of Maryam Azar's book titled "The Hijab Files". The cover features a young girl wearing a dark red hijab walking through a suburban area.

Importantly, The Hijab Files touches on the venom and prejudice that the hijab can induce from others, such as in the poem ‘The Hobbling Bogan’. How did you find the process of balancing in the book these negative experiences with the positive, empowering experiences?

I didn’t set out to balance the negative with the positive – that is to say, I didn’t take stock of the number of negative experiences and the positive. Overall, I wanted to present an authentic perspective on the life and times of a young, Australian-born Muslim woman who wears the hijab.

The collection explores the elegance, femininity, and fashion of the hijab has, including the allure of that which is concealed. Can you talk about the beauty of the hijab and its relationship with ideas of femininity?

There is something so seductive and empowering as a woman in being able to choose who sees what you look like without your hijab. It’s a high level of control you have over your appearance. Also playing with fantasy and imagination as someone might guess what you have underneath. You can see them but they can’t see you.

Many poems are about finding space for prayer, and how this is often done covertly, or self-consciously. What is it like to find space for prayer and what does it mean for you to write about this in poems?

I don’t know why I’ve often found it awkward or embarrassing to say I need a space to pray. I think it’s because our modern Australian culture doesn’t think very highly of prayer and to take it so seriously as to take time out of whatever you’re doing to perform it can make you look cognitively backward.

Of course I had to write about this feeling when describing the life and times of a young Muslim woman in Western Sydney as genuinely as I could.

In one poem, you mention that a friend suggests that your words ‘should be veiled’, just as your hair is. What did it mean for you to unveil your words and bring them out into the public through a poetry collection?

I’m a very private person and I suppose used to concealing with my practice of hijab wearing so it felt uncomfortable publishing my poetry. Especially knowing that many readers would assume every poem to be about me and my feelings even though that’s not always the case – I draw upon the experiences of others as well as my own and of course take creative licence with my writing. A young reader asked me what made me ‘reveal my secrets’ and it was interesting she thought of it that way. What drives me to publish what I write is a desire to work towards reclaiming representations of Muslim women while also giving diverse readers a chance to see themselves reflected in the literature they read.

You can purchase The Hijab Files from Giramondo Publishing.

Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.  

Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.  

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