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A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum was book my sorority’s book club chose for the month of June. It’s an Arab-American own voices novel on the conservative lives that Arab women live in America.
Synopsis: Eighteen year old Deya has begun meeting with suitors. She has no intention on getting married, but her grandparents are giving her no choice in the matter. History is repeating itself: Deya’s mother, Isra, had no choice when she left Palestine to marry Adam as a teenager. Deya was raised to believe that her parents died in a car accident. But when she receives a note from a mysterious and oddly familiar woman, Deya begins to question everything about her past. The narrative of the novel alternates between Deya and Isra’s lives and Deya begins to understand the dark, complex secrets of her community.
This novel follows a conservative part of the Arab Islamic community where arranged marriages are still in practice. Isra and Adam were arranged to be married by their parents and Isra had no choice but to follow “orders” in marrying a man she barely knew. Isra moved to New York City to live with Adam and his family, leaving everything she knew behind in Palestine. The culture that these families practice seemed to run heavily on various traditions.
Mild spoilers ahead!
While arranged marriages aren’t illegal or morally wrong, they are uncommon within the United States as a country. I found it interesting reading both Deya and Isra’s perspective and opinions on the situation. Isra seemed to have literally no choice in the matter. And I think that if she had tried to oppose her parents, they would beat her and potentially marry her off anyways. The tradition of arranged marriage in this context seemed to suggest that a woman’s only purpose was to marry a man and bear children, ideally boys. Throughout the book, Isra was continuously conflicted on her marriage to Adam and her purpose in life. The people in her life wanted her to bear sons, but unfortunately you can’t control the biological sex of your child. And I honestly really felt sorry for how Isra was treated each time she had a daughter. In the novel, it mentions that in the Islamic faith, daughters are as much of a blessing as sons. But this philosophy didn’t seem to be at the forefront of the people around Isra. And this ultimate lack of support made Isra blame herself for having daughters and at one point even pray to Allah to make sure she had a son. But unfortunately she never did have a son. And this did bring more and more conflict throughout the book after each child was born. Isra ended up bearing four daughters and no sons before she died.
Deya, Isra’s first child, is very self assured. Especially given her community’s culture. She is absolutely sure that she wants to attend college before getting married, and that’s assuming that marriage would even be a part of her future. But her grandparents insist on having her meet marriage suitors during her senior year of high school. Her grandparents do give Deya some choice in the matter at least with who she chooses to marry. But during this process of meeting suitors, Deya begins to learn more about what happened with her parents. And about the lies that have been told to her over and over.
I found this novel very intriguing because it’s from a perspective that I just haven’t hear from much before. This book definitely taught me about a part of the Islamic culture with the arranged marriages and gender roles. A Woman Is No Man really does explore multicultural identities, universal themes of loss, displacement, and transformation. Deya is Arab American but was born in New York and Etaf beautifully shows how the character’s two cultures are entwined and also vastly different. And Etaf also wrote the challenges of Isra’s character as she had to move from Palestine to New York City with little knowledge of her new home country.
My star rating:
You can find this book on my Contemporary Picks list on bookshop.org through my affiliate link: https://bookshop.org/lists/contemporary-picks