Etaf Rum writes an affecting debut novel in A Woman is No Man. This broke my heart like someone was sitting on my chest in every chapter. The oppressive cultural aspects of this Palestinian-American family make even the most conservative households seem progressive. Before long Rum clues us in to the family tragedies, but she also holds some details until the very end. The suspense was rough.

Rum offers three narrators, who each give us perspective on their different generation. Grandmother Fareeda tells the story of refugee camps in Palestine, and the decision to bring the family to America. Her husband Khaled is ever-present, but Rum gives him no significant voice. Instead, it’s the women who speak despite the repressive atmosphere.

From America, Fareed and Khaled journey to Palestine to find a wife for their oldest son Adam. It’s this young woman, Isra, who’s our second voice. She’s a quiet soul, almost to the extreme, and the move to America is difficult for her. In particular, Isra and Adam struggle to establish any kind of emotional connection. Instead, he objectifies Isra and never treats her like a human, much less a woman. And, like his father, Rum allows Adam practically no voice here.

Their oldest daughter, Deya, is the third voice Rum offers. She’s a relatively modern kid, despite her sheltered upbringing and attendance at Arabic school. She wants to rebel but the family suppression is strong. Deya is caught between her own instincts about life and her family’s expectations.

My conclusions

This isn’t a long book, but it is depressing. I couldn’t listen for more than an hour or so a day because my heart just hurt for these women. Isra and Deya are both trying to make other people happy. And in the process, they’re pulled into pieces. But there’s still hope for Deya because even just one generation later, her family is now slightly more Americanized. 

As a feminist reader, I often pick books focused on empowered female characters. But, it’s important to read the opposite end of the scale sometimes. Rum reminds me that not every woman in my country has full access to freedoms. 

On the other hand, I liked learning about the cultural aspects of Palestinian life. Although the book isn’t set in Palestine, the Old Country and its pervasive Arab culture infuses every moment. And this dichotomy between there and here is an important part of refugee or immigrant life. Since my family emigrated here many generations ago, I appreciate the reminder.

Another theme Rum uses is the magic and escape of books — including insights into other cultures and lives. Both Isra and Deya sneak illicit—non-Arab, English language—books into the house. It’s here that they learn about the world. And every reader relates to that!

I recommend this book for readers who enjoy connecting to new cultures. However, I’d delay it if your own life is challenging. It’s better for a happy time when the book’s darkness won’t overwhelm you.

Pair with Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, which also focuses on women in a cloistered community and their relationship to the men around them.