Etaf Rum’s debut novel A Woman Is No Man interweaves the narratives of three women from a Palestinian family: Fareeda, her daughter-in-law Isra, and Isra’s daughter, Deya. Spanning from 1970 to 2008 and from Palestine to Brooklyn, the novel confronts the suffocating expectations and violence inflicted upon the women in this culture and questions whether actions and attitudes have or can change. Throughout her tale, Rum highlights injustice yet chooses not to make the stories of these woman serve as a plea for pity.
Isra’s narrative begins as her parents arrange her marriage to Adam, a Palestinian man living with his parents and siblings in Brooklyn. Isra leaves her native Palestine to move in with his family, never having stepped foot in America. Once there, Isra continually disappoints her new family by giving birth to girls, and while she succumbs to the depression of a hopeless path, Adam turns to alcohol and abuse as an outlet for his frustrations at the pressures put on him as eldest son. The task of mothering overwhelms Isra, and she questions whether she will condemn her own daughters to a similar fate through inaction. Throughout, Isra shares her days with Adam’s mother, Fareeda, who stands as both victim and vessel of tradition.
In 2008, we find Deya and her sisters living with their grandparents, growing up in the shadow of their parents’ death in a car accident. What happened in between? When Deya receives a note from an apparent stranger asking her to make contact, she has to confront both the devastating truth of her family’s past and the challenge to become who she wants to be without forfeiting her roots.
While Rum develops portraits of female experience that both devastate and enrage, she uses her story to do more than cultivate pity and anger. Even as the women are abused, married off, kept indoors, and shamed, Rum crafts the argument that they still must try to carve out spaces of their own. In 2008, Deya’s aunt Sarah, knowing how difficult it is for a Muslim woman to achieve independence, nevertheless tasks her niece to forge her own path without alienating her family. It is an act of redefinition: naseeb, or destiny, can become not a fate prescribed for a woman but rather a dream for her to cultivate and achieve.
Both Isra and Deya seek to escape the literal and figurative confines of Fareeda’s house through the world of books, but Isra finds a challenge, too, in the very books that she turns to for solace. Rum writes, “She went to bed bewildered that she had felt herself so vividly in another place, that she could almost swear she’d come to life by night and the fictional world was the place she actually existed. But there were also days when the books didn’t seem quite as soothing. Days when reading would turn her mind and force her to question the patterns of her life, which only made her more upset.” Rum cleverly reminds us of the multifaceted nature of literature—it can provide ecstatic transportation to another world, but it also forces us to examine ourselves and our surroundings. The written word can underscore and embellish the beauty of everyday experience and yet still confront us with ugliness and the cowardice of complacency. It may be easy to get absorbed in A Woman is No Man, but it’s not an easy book to read or to stomach silently.
In one scene, at what should be a joyful picnic outdoors, Isra realizes that a comment she has just made will inevitably bring forth Adam’s violence that evening. As she anticipates the unavoidable dread, a suffocating injustice seems to rise from the page. Rum lets her readers feel disgust and anger but powerfully denies her women the right to helplessness, as she weaves into their voices the possibility of crafting destinies of their own choosing. If the streets themselves won’t change, perhaps Deya, at the cusp of adulthood, can walk a different route along them.