Life was nothing more than a bad joke for women.
So thinks Isra, one of the three women whose lives fill the pages of Etaf Rum’s debut novel A Woman Is No Man. This book was excruciating. Rum centers the misogyny that runs deep in conservative communities like the Brooklyn neighborhood in which Isra lives, where women are beaten by their husbands and are thrust into traditional gender roles. Following Isra as she evolves from a quiet but inquisitive young woman in Palestine to a meek wife in New York is heartbreaking and frustrating. We watch as she is berated by her mother-in-law for bearing daughters, wince every time reality dashes her dreams of raising them with the love she desperately desires from her new family. Every time Isra’s head bows further, we feel as helpless as she.
Rum frames this narrative as a cycle through the stories of Isra’s mother-in-law, Fareeda, and her daughter, Deya. Fareeda recounts her youth living in destitute refugee camps after the Nakba, the Israeli invasion of Palestine — the relative comfort of American life is something to be resisted with hard work and strict adherence to tradition. Fareeda’s relentless verbal abuse of Isra flows from the internalized misogyny she identifies as tradition: through her culture, she knows her place; through her place, she knows her culture. High school senior Deya resists Fareeda’s attempts to marry her off while dreaming of getting a college education, which is strictly forbidden to unmarried women. All the while, she slowly uncovers the truth about her mother’s life and the haunting similarities between them. As Deya and the reader try to understand Isra, we understand that the violence inflicted on these women is, as so often is the case, part of something far larger.
It would have been easy for Rum to paint the abusive husbands in this novel as simply evil. But she explores the course of modern Palestine, leading us to understand that this violence stems from more than just religious doctrine or wicked hearts. Would the men in her life have battered her, Fareeda wonders, had they not been battered themselves? The Nakba echoes through generations, sending waves of oppression and violence forward to an uncertain future. Can the cycle be broken? I found myself rooting for characters to resist it, but Rum makes it clear just how deeply generational trauma takes root.
It took me about four times as long to write this review as it did to read the book. There are graphic depictions of domestic violence, one scene of sexual violence, and no shortage of disparaging remarks about women. It left me seething at the reality of it all, and almost a bit pessimistic at the ending. For every woman who escapes legacies of violence, how many more are crushed by them? How many perpetuate them? A Woman Is No Man is one of those works that sweeps you up and sets you down winded. You feel more alive, somehow, but you need to recover, especially when you remember there are so many who will never come down.