#10 (2020) A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

I was lured towards A Woman is No Man in Hodges Figgis at the start of the year thanks to its bright cover and striking title. The feminist in me got all prickly and I was interested to see what it was all about.

Palestine, 1990. Seventeen-year-old Isra prefers reading books to entertaining the suitors her father has chosen for her. Over the course of a week, the naïve and dreamy girl finds herself quickly betrothed and married, and is soon living in Brooklyn. There Isra struggles to adapt to the expectations of her oppressive mother-in-law Fareeda and strange new husband Adam, a pressure that intensifies as she begins to have children – four daughters instead of the sons Fareeda tells Isra she must bear.

Brooklyn, 2008. Eighteen-year-old Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter, must meet with potential husbands at her grandmother Fareeda’s insistence, though her only desire is to go to college. But her grandmother is firm on the matter: 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 Deya will find herself on an unexpected path that leads her to shocking truths about her family…

As the blurb suggests, the narrative is split between Isra and her daughter Deya, with occasional chapters from Fareeda. Rum’s novel deals with the realities of arranged marriage, from the lining up of potential suitors to the union that follows. The three generation perspective allows for a range of viewpoints to come through; Fareeda’s thoughts about a woman’s role are far more conventional to those of Deya, for example, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. However, all three women are linked by an overarching sense of duty and expectation reinforced by their culture. Isra and Deya in particular find small ways to push against these expectations, and each feel constricted by their seemingly predestined path.

She wished she could open her mouth and tell her parents, No! This isn’t the life I want. But Isra had learned from a very young age that obedience was the single path to love. So she only defied in secret, mostly with her books. Every evening after returning from school, after she’d soaked a pot of rice and hung her brothers’ clothes and set the sufra and washed the dishes following dinner, Isra would retreat quietly to her room and read under the open window… (Pg. 6-7)

The novel wasn’t the easiest read. The subject matter is tough going and there’s an overarching sense of powerlessness that pervades the book and that made me feel angry for the protagonists. I found the way the women were treated difficult to deal with and I was crying out for an all-out rebellion. The similarities between the characters’ lives made me worry that history was going to repeat itself, ad infinitum. However, it also provided me with greater insight into the culture, which I previously knew relatively little about.

I think this is an important read to raise awareness, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter, but perhaps not one that you should start if your mood is a little low, or there’s a coronavirus pandemic tearing through the world.

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