When I started to read Etaf Rum’s “A Woman Is No Man,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. It struck me as the kind of book that I might have found to be too depressing and, as a result, exhausting to read. But I was pleasantly surprised to find out that instead of bringing me down, it actually gave me hope.
The story begins with Isra, a young Palestinian woman who is pressured by her family to get married. Despite her young age (she is just a teenager), she is expected to marry right away and have children. She does exactly what is expected and marries Adam, an abusive man who takes her to Brooklyn, where they live in a small house with his parents in an Arab neighborhood.
Years later, history repeats itself as Isra’s daughter, Deya, is pressured by her grandmother (Fareeda) with the same fate. But with the help of an estranged relative, Deya discovers she has more options than she is actually aware of.
Although I loved this book, there were many parts of the story that enraged me! It wasn’t so much the constant physical abuse by the men, but by the complacency and enabling of the abuse by the women. There were many pages that were beyond difficult to read. This especially hit hard for me because of my own Arab roots. My father is Egyptian and there was a time when he seriously considered bringing me to Egypt to raise me there. Eventually he decided against it and I got to stay in the United States. But when I was reading the book, I kept wondering what my life would have been like growing up in a traditional Arab culture. Likely, my experience would have been a bit different since my family seems a lot more liberal than Isra’s. In fact, many Arab families would be considered more liberal. Not all Arab families follow the same strict rules where men dominate women’s lives (thank goodness!)
The book has alternating chapters, from different character’s points of view. The author really shows the reader what it’s like to live an oppressive life under patriarchal rule through the eyes of Isra, Deya, and Fareeda. These women feel that they have no rights to make their own choices. Even something as small as going outside for a walk is forbidden.
This type of oppression against women is not specific to just the Palestinian community described in this book. Sadly, it happens throughout the world and from all different cultures. This story is definitely a reminder that, even in 2019, we still have a long way to go for gender equality.