It’s easy to become outraged about the treatment of women in the Muslim world when it takes place far away, as in the memoir Daring to Drive or fiction like Song of a Captive Bird or The Pearl that Broke its Shell. It’s ingrained through centuries of custom and dogma, but debut author Etaf Rum shreds any sense of complacency about American values superseding cultural ones in her novel, A Woman is No Man. In 1990s Brooklyn, the young Isra, newly arrived to America, is still subjected to the same life she had back home in Palestine. Even worse, a decade later little has changed for her daughter Deya. The country may be different, but the behavior, and its impact stays the same, in this somber story.
At 17 Isra is seen as blessed to be marrying Adam, an American. Now she will be able to leave her life of hard work and seclusion and become the wife of an prosperous business owner. But life in Brooklyn is no different than home, except that instead of living with her parents and helping her mother, she lives in the cramped basement of her in-laws’ house and works for her mother-in-law, cooking and cleaning for the entire family. Not only does she not find freedom in America, she fails at her one purpose in life—giving birth to daughters not sons. Daughters who, despite being born in America, will be faced with the same life.
Deya is Isra’s oldest and at eighteen is being told to prepare for marriage rather than going to college. Isra and Adam are gone, killed in a car crash a decade ago and the girls live with his parents. Her grandmother brings suitors and their families to the house, despite Deya fervent desire to go to college, travel, and be a writer.
By alternating chapters between Isra’s life in the 1990s and Deya’s in 2008 Rum heightens the bleakness of life for women in A Woman is No Man. Yes, Deya can go to high school, but it is an all-girls Islamic school. She can rebel in small ways and keep secrets, but she feels no more able to say no to an arranged marriage than her mother did. It isn’t until a mysterious woman leaves a note for her, asking to meet, that Deya’s perception and understanding about her family’s history and her own future are blown apart.
Whether she is telling Isra’s story or Deya’s Rum steeps A Woman is No Man in the dark flavors of living as a conservative Muslim woman. She plumbs the depths of innocence born of ignorance when Isra wonders if her husband’s actions are because he loves her
She breathed and breathed until the familiar throb of rebellion dissipated…Adam must be afraid for her safety. Surely he would give her more freedom when she got older. And then a new hope occurred to her: perhaps his overprotectiveness was out of love. Isra wasn’t sure if that was one of the things love made you do, possess someone.
In Deya the reverberations of what she saw in her mother’s submission and her grandmother’s hardline attitudes means she discounts her dreams, wonders if marriage and children really are all women are meant for, and feels helpless to control her own destiny.
The story may be specific to an ultra-conservative religion, but Rum channels the emotions of all mothers and daughters when we see how Isra and Deya, across a chasm of unspoken words and years, were actually reaching towards each other, even though they felt worlds apart. This is not easy reading, but this aspect, plus the importance of understanding all women’s experiences makes A Woman is no Man worthwhile, poignant reading.