A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum (HarperCollins 2019)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
A book’s purpose is to inform, whether it paints a view of a fantastical world or provides a reflection of everyday life. Sometimes, these purposes indulge our curiosities naturally and slowly. Other times, the author forces our eyes wide open to take in harsh truths we weren’t prepared to face. Etaf Rum’s debut novel, A Woman Is No Man, displays the traditions, culture, and societal expectations of Arab families, but also shows the painful reality for its woman.
Told from a multi-generational, close, third-person narrative, Rum’s A Woman Is No Man follows three different women from the same family. Introduced first is Isra in 1990. At 17-years-old, she weds Adam, a Palestinian man 12 years her senior, and moves from Birzeit, Palestine, to Brooklyn, New York, with romantic fairytale notions filling her head. Next, we meet Isra’s oldest daughter, 17-year-old Deya, in Brooklyn in 2008. Deya questions the choices of her long-deceased mother, and dreams of going to college, especially over her grandmother Fareeda’s plans to marry her off. Finally, we come to understand Adam’s mother Fareeda’s intentions for her family, with her own timeline beginning in 1998, which bridges the gaps in Isra’s story and helps to explain Deya’s.
Rum presents two contrasting female characters in Isra and Deya. Isra is obedient, silent, and meek whereas Deya is defiant, curious, and outspoken. However, Isra and Deya share two important traits: their societal expectation of marriage and their love of books. As Isra’s mother tells her, “There is nothing out there for a woman but her bayt wa dar, her house and home. Marriage, motherhood–that is a woman’s only worth” (11). This idea of marriage and motherhood eventually dominates Isra’s life as she fails to produce a son, giving Adam four daughters instead. With each mounting failure, Isra’s silence becomes deeper, and her bookish illusions about a happily ever after shatter.
Deya understands the expectations Fareeda and the rest of her family have for her, but instead of quiet acceptance, Deya questions everything while fruitlessly pushing her academic agenda: “If it were up to her, she’d postpone marriage for another decade. She’d enroll in a study-aboard program, pick up and move to Europe, perhaps Oxford, spending her days in cafes and libraries with a book in one hand and a pen in the other” (31). Deya’s inquisitive nature meets with fate when an anonymous white envelope is left on her doorstep. The note alters the course of her future, but also grants her the chance to uncover the answers she never knew she needed.
Rum establishes Isra and Deya, but also creates a perception of Fareeda through their eyes. Once Fareeda is granted her own narration, Rum effectively complicates not only Fareeda’s relationships within the novel, but the audience’s one with Fareeda. “She was not surprised when her father came home and beat them mercilessly…Nor was she surprised when he married her off to a man who beat her, too. How could he not, when they were so poor that their lives were filled with continuous shame? She knew the suffering in women started in the suffering of men…She had decided early on in her marriage to focus only on the things she could control” (116). Family and a good reputation are the two most significant things to Fareeda. These core values pass through generations, and build the foundation for Fareeda’s intentions and actions throughout the story.
Although Rum gives us strong female characters, she also discusses difficult and raw themes. This book is not for the faint of heart and contains triggers for domestic violence and uncomfortable sexual moments. However, through pairing these painful scenes with very human characters, Rum highlights two running concepts throughout the novel: silence and belonging.
From the opening of her novel, silence plays such a large role, it’s almost a character itself: “Where I come from, voicelessness is the condition of my gender…We’ve been taught to silence ourselves, that our silence will save us. It is only now, many years later, that I know this to be false” (1). Rum thrusts the idea of a stereotypical, quiet female in the reader’s face from the novel’s inception, before using the following 336 pages to break down all of the problems with keeping quiet. This issue of silence does not solely extend to women. Even the men in Rum’s world cave to their family’s whims and shove the pressures and responsibilities they feel down their throats, often leading to negative outlets like drinking, smoking, and abuse.
Along with a unique view on silence, Rum uses her characters to re-imagine a sense of belonging. Regardless of gender or ethnicity, Rum offers a familiar realization: “It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t Arab enough. She had lived her entire life straddled between two cultures. She was neither Arab nor American. She belonged nowhere. She didn’t know who she was” (28). Rum captures the difficulties people endure when they mix who they are presently with who they are becoming. Her audience may not all be Arab-Americans, but the need to belong will strongly resonate with the majority of her readers.
In the face of silence and the battle to belong, her three, complex protagonists each remind us of something valuable by the end of their story. From Fareeda, the family’s overbearing matriarch, we remember the power of forgiving ourselves and those around us. From Isra, the silent mother, we understand the importance of finding validation and love within ourselves. And lastly, but perhaps, most importantly, from Deya, the daughter of courage, we recognize our ability to tell our own stories and the true significance of their worth.
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