Review – A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
This is not my first but second venture into Palestinian-American literature, as I just last year read Laila Halaby’s novel West of the Jordan for a graduate seminar, which I highly recommend and which deals with some of the same themes as this book. This novel is a multi-generational saga that details the struggles of a Palestinian-American family living in Brooklyn trying to adapt and sustain old traditions in a foreign land. The book is primarily focused on the women of the family and the particular limitations, expectations, and roles that these women must play in a culture that by American standards (whatever that term actually constitutes) would be considered patriarchal. The book follows the lives of three women: there is Isra, a young, passive girl who marries into a Palestinian-American family at the beginning of the book and afterwards immigrates to the United States; Deya, Isra’s cynical, disillusioned daughter; and Fareeda, Isra’s mother-in-law and the traditionalist matriarch of the family, who exerts a lot of energy to ensure that the old ways of doing things in Palestine continue in the family’s new home.
I want to acknowledge that I know very little about Palestine, the Middle East, Islam, or what exactly is or isn’t considered “Arab,” however as an outsider looking in, and as someone that wants to be as culturally relative as possible, I tried my hardest to sympathize with the character of Fareeda, who I feel was oftentimes positioned as the antagonist of this book. Wanting to marry off her teenage granddaughters to the sons of good families, though she faces a lot of protest throughout the novel for trying to do this, she is merely doing what she knows is the normal thing to do in their culture. I was skimming Rum’s Twitter feed and there was a particular tweet acknowledging and responding to an accusation that the novel was reinforcing negative stereotypes about women in Arab countries, and there were many instances while I was reading this book when I had to stop and think about how universal this experience might be in Palestine, Palestinian-American communities, and other Muslim countries. Is this indeed a commonplace experience, or is this possibly just the experience of a particularly conservative Palestinian family, an exception and not the norm? Regardless, this is a powerful story and one that needs to be told, especially in the United States where we as Americans, who oftentimes consider ourselves to be more progressive than the majority of other countries, feel that we have come a long way and no longer need a committed gender equality movement. We must continue to remember that even within our own borders, we must strive to actively value and appreciate all of our women.
Rum, Etaf. A Woman is No Man. HarperCollins, 2019.