(Audio) Book Review: A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

In 1990, Isra is a teenage girl living in Palestine. She’s quiet and bookish, an obedient daughter to parents who see her as more of a burden than her brothers simply because she is a girl. Isra is quickly married off to Adam, who is older than her and lives in Brooklyn with his parents, brothers, and younger sister. Isra leaves behind everything she knows to begin married life with a near stranger. Pressure on her is heavy to be an obedient and submissive wife and to bear sons. Over the next few years, Isra is increasingly isolated in a foreign country, mother to four daughters, with a volatile husband and an overbearing mother-in-law.

In 2008, Deya is the oldest of Isra and Adam’s four daughters. She lives with her sisters and her grandparents, her parents having died when she was a little girl. Deya has not yet finished high school but her grandmother, Fareeda, is beginning to put pressure on her to choose a suitor and marry. Deya wants to go to college, to have options but her life is small and limited. When someone from her childhood approaches her, Deya begins to learn the truth of her mother’s life and starts to ponder greater possibilities in her future.

The story switches back and forth primarily between Isra and Deya, though we do get some perspectives from Fareeda as well. In this we see the intense pressures and the powerlessness that can exist within a very traditional Muslim family, particularly for women. Fareeda and her husband were displaced and raised their children in a refugee camp until they managed to save enough money to move to America. Isra is married off without a choice to a man she doesn’t know and moves to a country where she doesn’t speak the language and has no support. Deya is American-born but so sheltered within her grandparents home and the Palestinian community that she has almost no awareness of what life in America might be like.

Etaf Rum is Brooklyn-born, a child of Palestinian immigrants according to her bio so I would presume that while this story may not be similar to her own life, she knows this community well. I would say overall, the story is not a positive picture of Muslim or Palestinian families. Isra’s and Deya’s experiences are not presented as unusual or out of place but we see the patterns that exist throughout their families and for the women around them. Women themselves participate in the systems that keep other women in these abusive situations. Fareeda particularly is shown to believe that her daughters-in-law should not have greater privileges than she herself ever had and Isra fears that she will one day end up also pushing her daughters into unwanted marriages.

The men are certainly no better as almost all of them are shown to be abusive and uninterested in who the women around them truly are. We don’t get a glimpse into their minds or thoughts so they do tend to come across rather one-dimensionally. I would have liked to learn more about Adam’s brothers, particularly because they do seem to eventually take measures to protect their wives.

I couldn’t help comparing this book a little to another recent audio book I listened to that featured a Muslim family of immigrants to America – A Place for Us. What struck me most was that while both families claim a Muslim culture and background, the family in A Place for Us seemed to be a practising religious family with rituals and habits engrained into their lives. In A Woman is No Man, religion is not a part of their daily lives and in fact, many of the characters flout the rules of Islam, such as not drinking alcohol. They seem to use religion primarily as an excuse to abuse those around them.

I listened to this on audio and overall really enjoyed it in that format. There were different narrators for each section, voicing the 3 different women we get to hear from. That worked very well in differentiating them and highlighting their differences. I found that the narrator for Deya’s sections rather overpronounced which made some parts feel melodramatic. As always, I appreciated being able to hear correct pronunciations of names and words.

6 thoughts on “(Audio) Book Review: A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum”

  1. I don’t think this book is for me, especially give how we in the U.S. already demonize Middle Eastern countries and the religions associated with them. In that sense, while the author may be writing from experience, I wonder if she could have, instead, written a memoir to hit home that this is the experience of some families, not all. Instead, it sounds like she’s written what many readers may consider a prototypical Palestinian or Muslim family.

    1. I’m torn because it is such a negative portrayal. If the author was white I’d be hugely uncomfortable but since she’s writing about a community that she is a part of, it’s not my place to speak about accuracy, you know? And when white authors write about dysfunctional and abusive white families, readers don’t see that as a representation of all white families.

    2. Oof, you got me, Karissa! You are totally right. I think I was looking bigger picture at how white readers would interpret the book and have negative confirmation bias, but you are absolutely not wrong. We pressure minority and vulnerable groups to represent their entire culture, and I should know better–it’s something Zora Neale Hurston, my favorite author, constantly lamented and was ostracized over.

    3. Oh, I’m fully calling myself out here because I had the same reaction. As I read I felt like the author was being too negative in her portrayal of a Muslim Palestinian family. But when I read negative portrayals of white Christian families I expect other readers to understand that that isn’t an accurate portrayal of me or my family!

  2. I enjoyed reading the above comments between you and Melanie – and I felt the same way as both of you! I’m always torn between the whole ‘well that seems like an unfair portrayal’ but also – she’s not speaking for everyone either. Melanie is right though, that white readers can easily see books like this as justification for their racism, but it’s also unfair of us to put the responsibility of defending a culture or religion on one writer. Lots to chew on here 🙂

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