A Woman is No Man
By: Etaf Rum
Published: March 5, 2019
From the Cover
“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.”
Palestine, 1990. Seventeen-year-old Isra prefers reading books to entertaining the suitors her father has chosen for her. Over the course of a week, the naïve and dreamy girl finds herself quickly betrothed and married, and is soon living in Brooklyn. There Isra struggles to adapt to the expectations of her oppressive mother-in-law Fareeda and strange new husband Adam, a pressure that intensifies as she begins to have children—four daughters instead of the sons Fareeda tells Isra she must bear.
Brooklyn, 2008. Eighteen-year-old Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter, must meet with potential husbands at her grandmother Fareeda’s insistence, though her only desire is to go to college. Deya can’t help but wonder if her options would have been different had her parents survived the car crash that killed them when Deya was only eight. But her grandmother is firm on the matter: the only way to secure a worthy future for Deya is through marriage to the right man.
But fate has a will of its own, and soon Deya will find herself on an unexpected path that leads her to shocking truths about her family—knowledge that will force her to question everything she thought she knew about her parents, the past, and her own future.
Set in an America at once foreign to many and staggeringly close at hand, A Woman Is No Man is a story of culture and honor, secrets and betrayals, love and violence. It is an intimate glimpse into a controlling and closed cultural world, and a universal tale about family and the ways silence and shame can destroy those we have sworn to protect.
At the beginning of 2019, I made a list of reading goals. One of these goals was to read more books that are provocative and challenging. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my lighthearted and easy reads, but as years go on I have begun to recognize the ability some books have at developing empathy, broadening horizons, bringing exposure, and posing challenges. This book is one of them.
I was drawn to the story from the beginning. What really captured me was the way in which this book illuminated topics that are touchy and uncomfortable to address for some. Etaf Rum is unapologetic in her writing, and you can hear her voice, her story, and the stories of countless women around the world seeping into the pages. A Woman is No Man addresses topics surrounding arranged marriage (which may be considered old-fashioned in America to most, but is less so in other parts of the world), women’s choice, women’s literacy and education, domestic abuse, culture versus religion, immigrant narratives, asylum, and more.
On the one hand, this book provides a glimpse into the life that some women face in the world, but on the other, it speaks more broadly to the things women everywhere face. You don’t have to be Muslim to connect with this book. It is about women of color. It is about women who desire more than what their families demand of them. It is about women finding an identity for themselves outside of their partners. It is about self-discovery, difficult choices, and making sacrifices. It is about women finding a way to be unapologetic in their pursuit of a life that is based on more than just what they can offer men.
I think there is something special about reading this book as a woman, and let me tell you why. There were times when I was reading about Deya’s attempts to choose her own path in life and I would think to myself: Be careful, Deya. Don’t upset your elders. Don’t disturb the plan for your life. Things will work out. And I immediately stopped myself and thought WHOA this is point of this book. Women have been brought up for most of eternity to not upset the balance and to just do what is expected (so much so, that that was my first thought when Deya was planning on forging her own path). Think about it, ladies. How many times a week do you:
- Apologize before speaking up or asking questions
- Immediately dismiss your thoughts/questions as “stupid” (“This is probably a stupid question, but . . .”)
- Go out of your way to not be in the way of someone else, regardless of whether it is a man or woman
- Feel that others criticize you silently (or verbally) for choosing a career/path in life that is not conducive to being a “traditional” mother?
- Feel that you have to be less feminine to be taken seriously as a professional
- Get asked when you’re going to find a partner/get engaged/get married/start a family
- Get dismissed by men for your valid thoughts and ideas
- Back down in a disagreement or debate with a man, not because you are wrong, but because forcing your point would make people imply things about your character
- Don’t speak up unless you have all of your facts in order
- . . . And more
To all of the men out there, this book is especially for you. There is not a single man in this world that does not interact with women on a daily basis. This book is for men who will one day marry a woman: may you always support her goals and dreams, and never cause her harm. This book is for men who might one day have a daughters: may you raise her to never back down, be strong in her convictions, and stand tall in the face of criticism. This book is for the men who work with women: may you give them space to thrive, respect their personal life choices, and acknowledge the sacrifices they make to be there.
I can’t say enough about this book (Obviously . . . if the length of this review is any indication. If you’re still reading this, wow, you are a rockstar). This book challenged me, broadened my understanding, gave me an insight into a world I didn’t know existed, and left me ruminating for days.
No post review today. I feel like I’ve written enough already. So instead, I’ll leave you this video that sparked similar feelings that the ending of A Woman is No Man sparked within me.
If they think your dreams are crazy, show them what crazy dreams can do. #justdoit
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) February 24, 2019