The Bossy Bookworm
Review of A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum
Updated: Aug 2, 2020
“Where I come from, we’ve learned to silence ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence will save us. Where I come from, we keep these stories to ourselves. To tell them to the outside world is unheard of, dangerous, the ultimate shame.”
In A Woman Is No Man, Etaf Rum explores the often powerless and essentially voiceless status of her female characters within their conservative Arab culture, both in Palestine and as immigrants and first-generation Americans in New York.
Female characters--as well as their female friends and relatives who appear in retold stories and histories--are forced into arranged marriages and sometimes regularly forced into sex and therefore childbearing and child rearing. Within the world of the book, these women are without freedoms or exposure to the outside world; their education is not valued; and they are largely unable to leave the house, kept inside and cooking.
Much of this is dark. It is presented as a relatively unanimous sentiment that it's a burden to raise daughters, and there is a frequently verbalized shame for a mother who births a daughter. Rum also explores the perpetuated cruelty of her female characters against their daughters, daughters-in-law, and other young women in the community—in some cases embracing and adding to their suffering because of what the elder women have themselves suffered. The dark basement where a main character spends most of her time adds to the claustrophobic feel of that story line.
Rum, a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, presents an indictment of the devalued role of women in traditional Arabic culture. The story is built around the women's constant pain, with wives being beaten almost universally within the story. In multiple cases the beatings result in death.
On the other side of the stifling gender role trap, Rum also somewhat explores the pressures of birth order roles and traditional Arab male roles that are shown to push some characters to their limits (while letting younger sons off the hook) when set with the task of providing for the extended family and scrabbling to secure their future financial stability.
Yet there are bright points: some rare friendships emerge, sisters build intense loyalty to each other, girls and women find joy in secret reading and in books, women find strength and demand truth rather than secrecy, and there are occasional breaks to freedom. The details Rum provides as a thread throughout the book of the food, spices, and meals that create much of the structure of the women’s days are wonderful.
A minor note: I felt as though there was too much talking and explaining midway through the book when Deya encountered someone with the truth about her parents’ past. This felt a little forced to me.
A Woman Is No Man ultimately explores the superhuman drive and bravery required by Rum's female characters--but also many other real-life women--to write a new history, one in which they enjoy freedoms and a voice.
What did you think?
Did you read this one? What did you think of knowing something bad was going to happen to a main character? Sometimes the trudge toward disaster makes me a very nervous reader.