As voices continue to emerge within the tradition of Anglo-Arab fictions, one constant within these narratives is the conversation surrounding the negotiation of identities between one’s traditional culture vis-à-vis a Western one. Etaf Rum’s debut novel “A Woman is No Man” diverges from traditional representations of identity struggle by providing readers a gendered perspective. The novel follows the lives of three generations of women within the same family. It begins with Isra in 1990 Birzeit who as a 17-year-old woman in Palestine prefers reading books to entertaining discussions of marriage and suitors. One day, a family of Palestinian-Americans comes to her home to ask for her hand and it is here that the reader is introduced to her future husband; Adam Ra’ad, of Ramla via Brooklyn, New York. As if in an instant, Isra finds herself immigrating to a new country equipped with her own version of the American dream; the hope of finding love and freedom.
It becomes apparent early on in the novel that Isra’s life would be defined by a sort of domestic captivity. Her days are cyclical and she is unable to experience anything beyond the four walls of her basement or the kitchen where her demanding mother-in-law, Fareeda, expects her to spend her days working with her hand in hand. Isra’s life is reduced to bearing children, cleaning, and cooking an array of Palestinian cuisine. Much to the chagrin of her mother-in-law, all of Isra and Adam’s children are girls, placing further pressure on the couple to carry on the family name in the US, which although is their new home remains foreign and intimidating. From this unhappiness, an explotative relationship in which Adam beats Isra is borne, further deepening the vicious cycle of abuse and domestic confinement that dominates the passages of this novel. In the wake of her trauma, Isra reads to cope with her pain and becomes silent rarely using her voice.
Among the strengths of Rum’s debut is the manner in which she is able to weave the three perspectives of the women whose experiences occupy her pages. The narrative shifts back and forth between Isra, Fareeda, and Isra’s first-born daughter, Deya. Like her mother, Deya struggles with the ennui of the domestic life. She is unable to shake off the pressure and suffocating nature of Fareeda’s demands and expectations, who despite the many tragedies that have befallen her family, still wholeheartedly believes that a woman’s place is at home and her destiny is to marry and become a mother. In response to this, all the women in this novel, except for Fareeda, are strikingly similar in their voracious appetite for books as a means of mental escape. All the men are similar in their inability to see beyond their role as financial providers and as patriarchs of the family structure.
The outlier in this narrative is Deya, who in contrast to her grandmother and mother, is outspoken, daring and longs for a life filled with options. She represents the first or second generation born to traditional immigrant communities in the US and elsewhere, a generation that struggles to fully accept gender roles in a hyper-traditional context. As such, “A Woman is No Man” is among few novels of its kind and could serve as a timely intervention at a time when the public debate surrounding domestic abuse and sexual harassment is at an all-time high in the global media. In addition, Rum subliminally suggests that the occupation and violence that dominates many a Palestinian experience is in itself the demon that doubly oppresses both men and women, as they have little power and agency other than to re-enforce and comply with hyper-traditionalism.
Where Rum’s debut falls short, however, is in its use of absolutist language and over-generalisation of a diasporic community facing many struggles. In her attempt to portray the anxiety and cyclical nature of domestic confinement, Rum has produced a novel in which a singular message inundates the works’ 300-some pages, which as its title suggests; that a woman is not privy to the same freedoms as a man. This is apparent in the book’s opening lines, a declaration from Deya’s perspective:
I was born without a voice, one cold, overcast day in Brooklyn, New York. No one ever spoke of my condition. I did not know I was mute until years later, when I opened my mouth to ask for what I wanted and realized no one could hear me. Where I come from, voicelessness is the condition of my gender.
While Rum has stated in her interviews that her primary struggle in writing this novel was betraying a code of silence within her community, one that has struggled in the wake of anti-Palestinian sentiments and rising Islamophobia, she felt that it was important to represent the struggles of women undergoing this particular experience. As such, Rum could have dismissed this fear altogether had she made the distinction that this novel represents a Palestinian/American experience, one that she and others have witnessed or experienced, rather than a superlative Palestinian/American experience.
To suggest that a woman does not have a voice in Arab society, which Rum does at many points throughout the novel, wholly ignores the tradition of story-telling as a means of historical preservation and survival that the Palestinian diaspora has come to be known for, a tradition that both men and women enjoy. Furthermore, since the dissent into exile now enters its fourth generation, many Palestinians value the pursuit of education and intellectual freedom above all else. Just as in any (immigrant) community, while there are those who remain beholden to a limited interpretation of traditions, there are also a large number of men and even more women from within those communities who are enjoying their meteoric rise to the top of the social ladder, whether through their acceptance into the Ivy League or through their innovative contributions to society.
Rum’s representation remains an important one, however, it unfortunately plays into the trope of conflating one immigrant experience with all immigrant experiences in their many manifestations, rather than to emphasise that it is a representation of one family and one community in this vast world of struggles and lived experiences. The issue of women’s freedom and agency is a global one and not a predicament that is exclusive to Arab cultures, broadly speaking. The West’s obsession with using one person of colour’s experience or image as the poster child that acts as the sum determinant of a collective’s understanding of that culture also remains a universal challenge. It is high time that we all focus on distinction and the nuance of linguistic registers in our mutual exchange of information. All in all, Rum’s debut presents readers with a heartbreaking story, having many wondering what she will bring forth to her readership in the next iteration.