A writer I like made a joke a few years ago on Twitter. She linked to a current news story and her comment was simply: #banallmen. It was a hashtag used a lot during the run up to the 2016 election. I think of this phrase often, while being a woman online. While being a woman walking down the street. While being a woman in a country that elected Donald Trump, and the many men before that. I think of it a lot when I read news stories about the environment and climate change. When I read most news stories, come to think of it. Untested rape kits. Lenient sentences for well-connected rapists. Boys will be boys. Supreme court cases, and justices. Powerful men taking advantage. Women dragged for saying a word.
I think of this phrase, often laughing, because it’s absurd, of course, and yet. I think about it a lot in my narrow purview of existence. That’s part of my love for reading books from other cultures: there are threads that connect us. Like the realization that the patriarchy is detrimental to us all.
Etaf Rum’s novel A Woman is No Man is set in Brooklyn, mere subway stops from where I used to live, but it feels like another world. But it’s not another world: it’s another culture, and one that not many are privy to. I’m no scholar on the Middle East or Palestine or the Arab immigrant enclaves in Brooklyn. Yet Rum has let me, her readers, peer into a conservative society that lives and works and goes to school here; she’s showing us the many layers we can’t see for ourselves. Rum carefully constructs a demonstrative story about the hypocrisy of the world, generational oppression, and the tool of shame—bestowed upon women by the misdeeds and mistakes of men.
She knew that the suffering of women started in the suffering of men, that the bondages of one became the bondages of another.
A Woman is No Man explores the perspectives of three generations of women in the same family. Isra, a teenager living in Palestine in 1990, finds herself making tea for potential husbands in meetings arranged by her parents. She is soon married off to a man from Brooklyn, and goes to America to live with him and his family. In Brooklyn, the chapter points- of-view include Deya, Isra’s daughter in 2008, and Fareeda, Isra’s mother-in-law. Within the first time jump from 1990 to 2008, there’s a tension to the reader noticed by something missing from Deya’s life: Isra. What happened to Isra? This mystery drives the novel, and its slow revelation still manages to be propulsive to the reader.
Isra’s portrayal is a tender one. Her character ages from the naive but curious teenager eager to please her parents to a woman suffocating from isolation, shame, and an abusive marriage. When the reader meets her teenage daughter Deya in 2008, we know something has happened to Isra, but we must follow Deya in order to uncover the truth. Meanwhile, Fareeda is arranging meetings with potential husbands for Deya, a senior in high school who is desperate to go to college despite her grandmother’s wishes. Fareeda is a key witness to all the time periods, and Rum almost molds her into a villain—except, of course, the villain is not a person, it’s a systemic oppression, it’s the patriarchy.
This insular and conservative society values men over women, sons over daughters. It is ingrained on the people within from a young age, and Fareeda is a shining example of upholding misogynistic tradition. Yet Rum is very careful with this story and its subject matter; I did not get the sense that this was a treatise on all Arab or Palestinian people, and she points out stereotypes as experienced by her characters. She shows other marriages that are not abusive (though, it must be said, they’re still arranged marriages). She shows the pressure that men feel to fulfill their own assigned roles. She shows other teenage women who can go on to higher education. And she directly takes Islam off the table as the provenance or reason for their culture.
One of Deya’s high school teachers explains:
‘Islam is about peace, purity, and kindness. Standing up to injustice and oppression. That’s the heart of it.’
Deya rolled her eyes. They couldn’t possibly be Muslims, if that’s what it meant. But then again, what did she know? Religion wasn’t something she had learned at home—they weren’t a devout Muslim family, not really. Once, Deya had contemplated wearing the hijab permanently, not just for her school uniform, but Fareeda had forbidden it, saying ‘No one will marry you with that thing on your head!’ Deya had been confused. She had expected Fareeda to be proud of her for trying to be a better Muslim. But after thinking about it more, she had realized that most of the rules Fareeda held highest weren’t based on religion at all, only Arab propriety.
Rum’s writing is thought-provoking for what she wants to make clear about the culture she herself grew up in and then was married into, like Isra. The fact that there are so many autobiographical elements in the text make the horror of the abuse and restrictions even more terrifying. And to be sure, there is bravery here in writing about the the abuse. Rum comes from a community that prizes silence and acquiesence in its women, yet here she is, publishing depictions of rape, abuse, gaslighting, broken bones, bruises, and a woman who jumps off stairs in despair.
It’s easier to turn away from these intense descriptions in a novel than it is in real life—but we still do. We turn away from women and men, girls and boys, who are abused. The thread of shame that affects Rum’s characters, that keep them silent, is not something that is only experienced in this story, it is insidious and pervasive due to the people who keep power. There is so much ignored because we cannot believe them to be true and the powers that be work to keep that power, that silence.
I remember talking to someone who disliked A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara because they felt it was like reading ‘torture porn,’ and that the abuse itself seemed unbelievable. I do believe that there is difficulty in reading abuse—and there are questionable depictions of it—but, having read enough about Catholic priests, and football coaches, and gymnastics team doctors, and acid attacks, and men locking up women for years in basements and boxes, well, the reality of human depravity is far worse than is given credit for, most of the time.
That discomfort is part of what is necessary. Viewers of the recent documentary Finding Neverland are subjected to the explicit testimony of victims of Michael Jackson’s grooming and sexual abuse. Confronted with the truth and the details of such abuse, perpetrated by a person that is known and relatively beloved puts viewers in even more of a position of discomfort. I, myself, was uncomfortable in facing the facts, and the many times they were ignored in the past. Now when I hear “PYT” come on in a store or otherwise, I cringe with the memory of the documentary. This discomfort is necessary in order to understand.
One of the most powerfully directed scenes in a recent film was a sex scene in The Tale, a movie about a young teenager abused by her track coach. The film is autobiographical; director and writer Jennifer Fox made a movie about abuse she experienced. And she filmed a scene, explicitly, of what looks like a 13-year-old girl being seduced by an older man in a position of power. It is chilling, and I wanted to look away. But Fox, like, Rum, is saying something through her chosen medium. I want to look away, I know I’m looking away from humanity at its ugliest, I want to look away even from myself—because we have constantly failed these victims of abuse, and failed to remove the systems that enable this abuse.
Something inside her shifted, as if her whole life she had been looking in the wrong direction, not seeing the precise moment that turned everything upside down, she saw the chain of shame passed from one woman to the next so clearly now, saw her place in the cycle so vividly.
Before you think that there is no room in this book for happiness; I assure you there is. In her actual life, Rum divorced the cousin she was forced to marry, raises her two children, and has earned several higher education degrees. Her love and passion and path to freedom was paved in what else—books. Rum’s love for the written word is clear in her precise and propulsive writing (I finished the book in two days), but also in her bookstagram, @booksandbeans, which happens to be the name of a bookstore in A Woman is No Man. Her characters find solace in fiction—from One Thousand and One Nights to The Bell Jar. They are able to discuss fiction and how they relate to it in their own lives; how stories can be a window to what is possible.
At times the narrative can feel so claustrophobic, though I think that is intentional. The characters are closed in and closed off, but reading and education allow for new paths. The characters learn through other people’s stories, much in the way a reader will learn through A Woman is No Man.
A Woman is No Man is a profoundly moving and important novel about what we choose to believe in, what we choose to see, and how we choose to move forward, away from antiquated systems of oppression. There are people throughout the world that don’t acknowledge the worth of women, that work hard to discredit women’s perspectives, that keep women from helping each other. Look around, look at yourself. Pay attention to the perspectives of people that may not be exactly like you. Read those books that may not speak to your background because they’ll likely you teach you what you don’t know, and not more of what you do. There are threads that connect us all.
A Woman is No Man
By Etaf Rum
337 pages. 2019.
Buy it here