A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum takes on a tough topic: three generations of Palestinian women facing lives of restriction, abuse and shame – in America, in the 2000s, no less.
Isra is born in Palestine and married off to a Palestinian-American man named Adam when she is only 17. She moves to Brooklyn, where her life is reduced to her in-laws’ house. She waits each day for her husband to come home, rarely venturing out or doing anything more than preparing meals and cleaning alongside her strong-willed mother-in-law Fareeda. When she produces daughter after daughter, rather than the sons her culture prizes so highly, she sinks deeper into shame and depression. Many years later, her oldest daughter Deja faces the same future her mother did at the same age: a planned marriage to another Palestinian man and the same claustrophobic cycle of housework and servitude.
Is there hope for these women, or at least for future generations? How can these cultural expectations be changed to allow for more fulfilling, equal lives for women? That’s Rum’s question and agenda in writing A Woman Is No Man. For what goes on for these girls is pretty shocking from a modern perspective, but it’s largely invisible. Who knew this was happening in the shadow of one of our most modern, progressive cities?
A Woman Is No Man has been a big book this year, including being selected as a Book of the Month choice, and I am certainly glad that Rum is shining a light on these women and this culture. That said, I found the book to be really repetitive and somewhat of a slog. Rum hammered her theme home over and over, with little plot progression or character development. These women had the same internal dialogue going the whole time. This of course enhanced the repressive, claustrophobic nature of their lives – it was a claustrophobic reading experience! – but it made me enjoy the book a lot less. I kept saying, “Yes, I get it,” in my head as I was reading. I also think this book is a good example of “show don’t tell”. Rum – a debut author – should trust her readers more. We can handle more nuance and subtlety. So while I appreciated the story and the characters, I was overall frustrated by the overall book.
Nicole and I are discussing A Woman Is No Man on our podcast The Readerly Report next week – I’ll drop a link here when the episode airs.