All, Book Reviews

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

What is a woman’s life worth? This question echoes across countries and generations through Etaf Rum’s intense debut novel, “A Woman Is No Man.”

“I was born without a voice, one cold, overcast day in Brooklyn, New York. No one ever spoke of my condition. I did not know I was mute until years later, when I opened my mouth to ask for what I wanted and realized no one could hear me.”
― Etaf Rum, A Woman Is No Man

Etaf Rum was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City to Palestinian parents. Her parents grew up in refugee camps in Palestine before immigrating to the United Sates. Rum was raised in a traditional family and entered into an arranged marriage at a young age. She then moved to North Carolina where, at the age of 19, she gave birth to her daughter and son two years later. Echoes of Rum’s experience can be found in her debut novel, A Woman is No Man, released in 2019. Frustrated by the restrictions on her life and wondering why she could not pursue the kinds of things a man could, her grandmother told her, Because. You can’t do this because you’re not a man.” While raising her children, Rum enrolled in North Carolina State University, where she earned a B.A. in English Language and Literature, a B.S. in Philosophy, and an M.A. in American and British Literature and Philosophy.

It’s the year 1990, in Birzeit Palestine. Isra Hadid is a seventeen-year-old girl who loves to read books. It helps her to cope with the realities around her. Isra realizes that an American family is searching for a bride and her father was interested to marry her daughter. Isra felt fear and excitement. Though, she knew she would be married away to lose the burden because they were poor. Although, She dreamt of getting married to someone she loved. Her mother instead discourages her and informs her that love has nothing to do with marriage. There is no room for love in a woman’s life. The only thing a woman should know is patience. Soon, her family marries her with Adam, and Isra awaits for a new life in Brooklyn. Isra hopes America to be different. She hopes women are treated with dignity and would have a choice of freedom. On the other side, her mother believed that a woman is a woman no matter what part of the world. Isra didn’t accept that. 

“That was the real reason abuse was so common, Isra thought for the first time. Not only because there was no government protection, but because women were raised to believe they were worthless, shameful creatures who deserved to get beaten, who were made to depend on the men who beat them.”
― Etaf Rum, A Woman Is No Man

Isra’s hopes of freedom, love and acceptance from her husband all went in vain. She realised America was no different for women. She was tired, afraid to face her in-laws. She had no courage, and even if she had, what change it would make? Nothing. All she would get would be the beating from her husband. Fareeda was always disappointed with her for not giving the family his first grandson. She only had Sarah, who she became an unlikely friendship. Fareeda’s daughter was no way like Isra. She was confident and daring. She was against marriage and Arab culture. All she wanted was to go to college and make her own choices.

Presently, it is 2008, after the tragic death of her parents, Deya was met to have the same fate. Fareeda was reluctant to fulfil her responsibility by finding a perfect suitor of Deya. But Deya wanted to go to college. Her journey is two-pronged. We accompany her as she does battle with her family, wanting to have her own choices. But one-day things change for Deya. She finds herself on an unexpected path that leads her to shocking revelations about her family. The story revolves in the past, which is told by Isra. The present, by her 18-year-old daughter, Deya. We also occasionally hear from Fareeda, Deya’s grandmother and Isra’s mother-in-law.

“She knew she had to teach them how to love themselves, that this was the only way they had a chance at happiness. Only she didn’t see how she could when the world pressed shame into women like pillows into their faces. She wanted to save her daughters from her fate, but she couldn’t seem to find a way out.”
― Etaf Rum, A Woman Is No Man

A Woman Is No Man is a intrinsic, compelling portrayal of a family, and its cultural values, and inner workings. Sometimes we remember the experiences we have while reading a book. The thoughts and self-reflection. The book haunted me for days. One element that permeates the novel is the notion of reading, or books, as sources not only of learning but of happiness, company, hopefulness, and motivation. Isra’s love for Arabian Nights is evident, and an affection she passed on to her daughter. 

It felt like all the characters in the story were antagonist because they were responsible for their sorrows. What happened to them, they did the same to the others. There was no end to selfishness, egos, superstitions, and there was no kindness. Not even the woman supported another woman.

The story highlights the significance of educating oneself, to find your voice, leaning that self-acceptance is the only necessary acceptance, and what it means to be a woman. Also, most importantly, this book shows how life-saving stories/books can be. One negative point of this book was reiteration at many points. I read the words ‘women have no choices!’ at least fifty different times. Yes, the message is critical. However, the writing started to feel like it was beating a dead horse by the end. Other than that, Etaf Rum has done an exceptional job for a debut novel!

“It’s the loneliest people who love books the most…it was the opposite of loneliness, too, like there were too many people around me, forced connections, that I needed a little isolation to think on my own, to be my own person.”
― Etaf Rum, A Woman Is No Man

This book makes us recognize the sacrifices women made. Today, if we have a voice, a platform, and liberty is because of our ancestor women who fought for us. They had to go through so many difficulties to reach here. This book made me so furious it made me mourn, curse, and detest the characters. It made me feel sorry for the unfairness, inequality, and ignorance. Women suffering from the rules from patriarchal culture, customs, illogical traditions made them feel vulnerable and worthless. A Woman is No Man is not easy to read some parts deeply froze my blood, it left me agitated.

No matter what any women said, culture could not be escaped. Even if it meant tragedy. Even if it meant death. It took more than one women to do things differently. It took a world of them.

I really recommend this books guys! Please read it and you’ll see how vulnerable, deep and powerful it is.

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