Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Woman is No Man - Etaf Rum

Summary:  Where I come from, we keep these stories to ourselves.  To tell them to the outside world is unheard of, dangerous, the ultimate shame.

Palestine, 1990: Seventeen-year-old Isra prefers reading books to entertaining suitors her father has chosen for her.  Her desires are irrelevant, however over the course of a week, the naive and dreamy girl finds herself betrothed then married, and soon living in Brooklyn.  There Isra struggles to adapt to the expectations of her oppressive mother-in-law, Fareeda, and her strange new husband, Adam: a pressure that intensifies as she begins to have children -- four daughters instead of the sons Isra is expected to bear.

Brooklyn, 2008: At her grandmother's insistence, eighteen-year-old Deya must meet with potential husbands and prepare herself for marriage, though her only desire is to go to college.  Her grandmother is firm on the matter, however: the only way to secure a worthy future for Deya is through marriage to the right man.  But fate has a will of its own, and soon Dey will find herself on an unexpected path that leads her to shocking truths that will force her to questions everything she thought she knew about her family, the past, and her own future.

Set in an America at once foreign to many and staggeringly close at hand, A Woman is No Man is a story of culture and honor, secrets and betrayals, love and violence.  It is an intimate glimpse into a controlling and closed cultural world and a universal tale bout a family and the ways silence and shame can destroy those we have sword to protect. (Summary from book sleeve - Image from

My Review:  I finished this book about five minutes ago and am sitting here, fingers hovering over the keyboard, trying to tame the whirlwind of thoughts and feelings swirling around inside me just enough so that I can put it all into words.  I'm afraid this won't be very polished and probably a little emotional, but I need to get some of this out, so bear with me.

A Woman is No Man is a novel about a family of women who, through the course of their lives, ache for more than the hand they've been dealt.  Threatened with marriage and motherhood at a young age, they dream of college, travel, respect, love, and options, but are confined in a rigid culture of humiliation, silence, and startling inequality where fear and brutality enforce the belief that they have no worth, voice, or purpose outside the home. In bittersweet ways, this book is also a tale of women who seize the right to choose, taking those first steps to freedom, with varying results. 

One of my favorite aspects of the story was how the love of books and reading had the power to offer several of the characters hope, inspiration, comfort, and courage in the the bleakest of times. The written word offered them painful glimpses into lives that may have felt unreachable, where a woman's right to define her own worth was exponentially more attainable, but it gave them something to reach for and was instrumental, for some, in finding their own voice.

A Woman is No Man would undoubtedly generate an animated conversation on any number of topics (e.g. the plight of the female immigrant, the importance of education, the concept of gender roles, harmful cultural traditions, and the perpetuation of domestic violence as well as those who enable it, and many more).  I could discuss each topic at length here, but it'd be way TLDR, so instead I'll just leave the in depth discussion to your next book club, but I would like to share a few of the quotes that hit me hardest (in good and bad ways):  

  • ...the shame of her gender was engraved in her bones.
  • want what you can't have in life is the greatest pain of all.
  • ...this was the way of life, she told herself.  There was nothing she could do about it.  Her powerlessness even comforted her somehow.  Knowing that she couldn't change things -- that she didn't have a choice -- made living it more bearable.  She realized she was a coward but she also knew a person could only do so much.  She couldn't change centuries of culture on her own ...
  • ...[she] had grown enough to know that the world hurt less when you weren't hoping"
  • "So you want me to just accept my life for what they tell me it should be?  What kind of life is that?""
  • Courage will get you everywhere, so long as you believe in yourself and what you stand for....You don't know what your life will be like, and neither do I.  The only thing I know for sure is that you alone are in control of your destiny.  No one else.  You have the power to make your life whatever you want it to be, and in order to do that, you have to find the courage to stand up for yourself, even if you're standing alone.
A Woman is No Man is an empowering and courageous tale, breathtakingly written, and unfathomably infuriating. As much as I value marriage and family in my own life, I bristle at the idea of someone forced into the role against their will. I have a hard time not internalizing the books I read and it was agonizing to watch these women slide into a well of despair, helplessness, fear, and shame.  Over and over, as my heart raced and my fists clenched and my blood boiled, I kept having to remind myself: This is fiction. This is fiction.  This is fiction.  

Except it's not fiction.  Not really.  

While these particular characters were created for the purpose of telling a fictional story, I have no doubt their woes are someone's reality and knowing that tore my heart out.  It evoked feelings of, well, rage, but also compassion and concern for those who feel so trapped, despairing, and alone in their own relationships.  Pardon me while I digress a bit, but this needs to be said: If you or someone you know are trapped in an abusive relationship, please know that there are people who want to help and who are willing to listen.  You can drop a private message to us via email, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, or call 1-800-799-7233.   Please reach out.  

In case I haven't made myself clear by now -- this book is unbelievably powerful but in no way pleasant.  If you are looking for happy-go-lucky chick lit, look elsewhere (but set this one aside for later).  This is not a book filled with fluffy bunnies and romance.  It just isn't.  It's frustrating and raw and ten kinds of awful, but so utterly compelling that I could barely breathe while reading it.  I was incredibly moved and forever changed by the experience. 

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Several instances of marital rape (one graphic) and domestic violence, one forced abortion (non-graphic).  

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