A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

This novel follows three Palestinian women living in Brooklyn, NY on two timelines—Deya, Fareeda, and Isra. Deya is eighteen with dreams of attending college and finding romantic, passionate love. Fareeda, Deya’s grandmother, believes that woman’s place is in the home and prefers Deya marry instead of attending college. In fact, she’s started arranging meetings with suitors. Fareeda’s beliefs are largely formed by her experience as a refugee in Palestine. Isra, Deya’s mother, was raised in Palestine, but married her husband, Adam (Fareeda’s son), and relocated to America where she believed women lived more freely. Isra’s storyline takes place in 1997 and she is deceased at the time of Deya’s narrative. ⁣⁣⁣
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When I finished this book and was preparing this review, I reached out to a close college friend, Evelyn, who is Lebanese-American to discuss some of the aspects of this book that differed from my cultural experiences. She offered some insights that deepened my understanding of the book and said I could share some of those here. So, I will be including her thoughts throughout. I will note that she hasn’t read this book, but plans to read it in the future. Thank you, Evelyn, for your insight, willingness to discuss the book, and time spent working on this review with me! ⁣⁣⁣

This book is a must read for women, specifically and everyone, generally. As I was reading, I couldn’t put it down, but I did have to take very deep breaths every few pages. One of the themes explored in this novel, quite heavily, is the emotional and physical abuse the women endure. Deya, and other characters as well, struggle to remain silent in the face of abuse. Deya remembers the abuse her mother endured at the hands of her father even though Isra struggled to vocalize her alarm at her husband’s violent behavior. When I expressed my concerns about the abuse present in the book and the way it was handled, Evelyn highlighted that physical abuse, while present in some families, is not present in all families. She mentioned that while someone in Deya’s position “may know their ancestors suffered abusive (usually gendered), in my experience, many first-generation Arab-Americans are often separated by it from varying degrees.” She also emphasized that any abusive behavior would not be a topic of discussion in the home and there is a ‘shove it under the rug mentality.’”

In the novel, Fareeda was often dismissive of Isra and told Isra that she should strive to be a pleasing, amenable wife. Similarly, Fareeda insists that Deya not discuss to the abuse she recalls from her childhood. According to Evelyn, the mother-son relationship is an extremely complicated, interesting one in Arab culture. Her thoughts, which I found very helpful in understanding Fareeda’s defense of Adam, emphasized that “oftentimes, but not always, a mother will favor the son. The fact that mothers are often very doting on their sons leads the sons to expect such treatment from their wives. This generally isn’t so exaggerated modernly, but it can be depending on the micro-culture or one’s upbringing generally. The extent of this coddling varies – sometimes mothers will excuse their son’s questionable behavior, and other times they aren’t so forgiving but tend to let little things slide. This is heightened by the fact that sons tend to get away with more things in Arab society, socially. They can go out, can have premarital sex, without consequence. Meanwhile, women are ‘dirty’ if they engage in such behavior. The effects of these thoughts linger today.” Evelyn felt it was important to understand this dynamic because it illustrates why Fareeda would probably never want her daughter-in-law to speak about the abuse, even if her son was in the wrong. The dynamic is very complicated. Further, she highlighted that Fareeda’s behavior likely stems from a complicated dynamic between someone’s own family versus their in-laws. There are times when someone is more forgiving of their direct relative and more critical of an in-law. This helped me understand why Fareeda was more patient with her own children and, I felt at times, hyper-critical of Isra, her daughter-in-law.

As the novel unfolds, Deya’s identity as a Palestinian-American grows and morphs until the strain between the often conflicting cultures becomes unendurable . Deya is told what options she has – she can either marry one of the suitors arranged for her or run away and live life she wants, free of familial duty. My friend said she related to this struggle because sometimes every decision you make as an Arab-American can feel like a cultural choice, which leads to internal dialogue, such as “Am I choosing my American side or my Arab side? Will this choice upset my family? Will that upset me?” She recommended @browngirltherapy (tagged in my post) for anyone interested in taking a deep dive into this dynamic.

Even Fareeda, whom readers gather from Deya and Isra’s chapters remains dedicated to her culture and the customs with which she was raised, struggles to embrace aspects of her culture that harm others. One quote that illustrates her struggles is: “Fareeda knew that no matter what any woman said, culture could not be escaped. Even if it meant tragedy. Even if it meant death. At least she was able to recognize her role in their culture, own up to it, instead of sitting around saying ‘If only I had done things differently.’ It took more than one woman to do things differently. It took a world of them. She had comforted herself with these thoughts so many times before, but tonight they only filled her with shame.” Evelyn mentioned that a lot of Arab-Americans who are first-generation feel it’s a purely first-gen issue, but that it actually extends to older generations. Thus, she appreciates that the identity struggle is shown in Fareeda’s experiences as well as Deya and Isra’s.

Etaf Rum thoughtfully depicts the struggles of the three women, and her writing is captivating and vivid. Throughout the book, reading and the love of books is a constant conversation piece between Deya, Isra, and Sarah, their aunt and sister-in-law respectively. Isra is a voracious reader, yearning to understand the things of life and her own mind better through books. There is a conversation where Isra is discussing what she wants to read and she says, “I want to read a book about someone like me.” In 1997, Isra is reading Pride and Prejudice, The Bell Jar, Lolita, and the like. All books about white women. Isra yearned to see herself in a book, and Deya, later in the book, has a thought about writing her own story and having the ability to do so. In some ways, this novel gives Deya and Isra their dream of reading a novel that’s meant for them – a place to curl into and be seen and feel heard. I think the beauty of the discussion about wanting to read a book about someone like you is that it underscores that Isra and Deya read novel after novel about someone who wasn’t like them and they still take valuable lessons from them. For example, Isra lives a very different life than Sylvia Plath’s narrator in The Bell Jar, and yet she recognizes the character’s depression on a molecular level. The novel makes her pause and reflect on her own experiences, and for the first time, she understands she is not the only person who feels the way she does.  

When I discussed the previous points with Evelyn, she mentioned that growing up, she would read all these amazing books and her parents encouraged her to reach for the stars academically and professionally, but she struggled to reconcile that encouragement with her cultural identity. Sometimes, the rules in place made her feel as if she was inhibited in some way. She mentioned that “it’s strange to identify with characters who are not like us, and it’s important to read about characters similar to us, but it’s also equally important to see characters in our identities achieve what the white characters do, too. [She] often wondered if that was even possible, or if such achievements would result in a diminishing of cultural identity.” Evelyn referenced A Room of One’s Own, and how that was the pinnacle of “representation matters” for her. When she mentioned this, it made me think about recent conversations about publishing and the lack of diversity in the profession. Representation is affected by systemic exclusion of certain voices, and it is important to tell stories where sexual orientation, gender, race, or national original are not barriers to publication. However, one of the points emphasized heavily in A Room of One’s Own is that money often controls access. This issue reveals itself in complex, layered ways and must be dismantled.

A Woman Is No Man was not meant for me, as a white woman, to feel seen or heard. However, reading this story reminds me that reading allows us to expose ourselves to lives we are unfamiliar with and expands our empathy because even if a protagonist is different than us, there are often quiet moments within the pages of a book where we can pocket valuable pieces away. Sometimes, that can be as simple as recognizing we are uneducated about a culture, tradition, or issue and need to read more. Other times, this may be recognizing a familiarity in another person that we don’t get from the people actually in our lives. When no one will talk to us about how we feel, books may offer a way to feel understood.

I really enjoyed this book, and I deeply appreciated the storytelling and the discussions around books and their value. Particularly, I appreciated how this novel underscored that reading allows exposure to different cultures while also highlighting ways that we are similar to people from whom we may otherwise feel disconnected. For example, I do not know what it’s like being Arab-American, and this novel made me recognize I’ve never had to wish for a book about someone like me—they’re readily available. Still, I appreciated the conversations about books, pursuing education and familial pressures that took place in the book. The conversations felt familiar even if the pressures discussed differed from those I’ve experienced.

I highly recommend this book and I hope you take the time to read it.

2 thoughts on “A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

  1. Great introspective review. I’ll be adding this to my TBR :)

    I love this point:

    “However, reading this story reminds me that reading allows us to expose ourselves to lives we are unfamiliar with and expands our empathy because even if a protagonist is different than us, there are often quiet moments within the pages of a book where we can pocket valuable pieces away.”

    It is also one of the reason why I keep on expanding my reading horizon.

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