I signed up for Book of the Month in January this year, getting two 2018 books and excitedly awaiting the months of books ahead of me. In February, I picked my first *real* Book of the Month: A Woman is No Man, the debut novel by Etuf Rum. (I also got two other new books for that month; February had some excellent selections!) I hadn’t heard of A Woman is No Man before, but reading its description, I knew I had to have it.
Finally I got to read it this month, and wow, it is an impactful novel. From the very first pages – the very first paragraphs – I was transfixed. I could tell I was in for profound, life-changing read.
A Woman is No Man follows two timelines, one of Isra in the 1990s, and one of her daughter Deya in 2008. Isra is a Palestinian teenager, naive, bookish, and dreaming of finding true love, when she’s married off to a much older man she barely knows. She’s taken to America to live in his family’s home in Brooklyn, New York. There, she’ll be his wife, bear his children, and serve his parents and siblings.
Early on, we see how little agency Isra has. She’s a women, and her new family – very conservative and strict – adheres to the sexism that runs deep in their culture. Isra can’t get a college education; she shouldn’t even read. She can’t get a job, or even leave the house on her own. Her purpose is to cook, clean, and bear children – preferably sons. Beyond that, she must accept the verbal and physical abuse she suffers at the hand of her husband and her mother-in-law. Both only grow worse as she continues to have more children. Is it any wonder that she feels isolated, depressed, and trapped in a life that doesn’t live up to her dreams?
Fast forward to 2008, and Isra’s first-born daughter, Deya, still lives in that same house in Brooklyn. Her parents both died in a car crash when she was young, leaving her and her siblings to be raised by their grandparents. But now that Deya is 18, her grandmother is eager to arrange a marriage. The only problem is that Deya has other plans: She’d rather go to college first and marry later.
The book is a slow unveiling of all the secrets and tragedies that go on behind closed doors. We watch as Isra’s life crumbles around her, but root for Deya as she attempts to overcome that which entrapped her late mother. We see how problematic behaviors – sexism and abuse – are passed down from generation to generation.
While this book does focus on the negative aspects present with the Palestinian and Muslim communities, I wouldn’t read it as an attack on that country or religion. Rather, it’s an eye-opening account of the issues that can continue in the most traditionalist and extremist of those within the Arab and Arab-American communities. Etaf Rum is an #OwnVoices author, and A Woman is No Man in some ways reflects her own upbringing and marriage.
As I was reading A Woman is No Man, I noticed numerous parallels to the last book I read, Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Both are about young women forced into marriage to older men. Both protagonists become immigrants in New York City, if from different parts of the world. They each become teenage mothers, suffer abuse, and are isolated in their new homes. The novels and characters are so similar, despite coming from different countries, continents, cultures.
While Dominicana portrays deep family issues, there is silver lining and understanding by the end. But with A Woman is No Man, Isra will find no such emancipation. My heart breaks for her, but it’s also so wonderful to see her daughter and another mystery character (no spoilers here!) push for a more progressive, equal, and free life.
Etaf Rum shows the toxicity of a culture that shames and demeans women. It’s not an attack on their religion – indeed, and as she describers herself, according to the Qua’arn and Muslim teachings, that’s not how their culture should be. Their religion denounces negative behaviors that some continue to tolerate and perpetuate. While there is diversity and positivity within her community, Etaf chose a perspective close to her, and her book shows a family that is particularly conservative and old-fashioned, amplifying the toxicity and tragic consequences.
Moreover, A Woman is No Man shows how vital it is that women are educated and free to control their own lives. It shows how real depression is, how horrible isolation is, and how much love matters. It shows how vital it is to protect people from domestic violence and to speak out against it. Etaf makes the case for progress within her community, and shines a light on how women can live better, more fulfilling lives.
All that said, Etaf Rum has written a masterful novel. It was thought-provoking and illuminating, and the storytelling pulled me through the pages rapidly. There are some big shocks towards the end of A Woman is No Man that still have me reeling. I may have read the last chapter twice, just for good measure.
A Woman is No Man is impactful from start to finish. It’s a book that will stay with me forever, and one I will urge everyone I know to read. Really, it’s a book every person should read and even re-read. I can’t wait to read more from Etaf Rum in the future.