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Whenever horrors of life are portrayed as being perpetrated within a particular culture, as they are in A Woman is No Man, by Etaf Rum, there must be concern that readers outside that culture will see this to be a fair representation of that group of people as a whole. Rum has made it explicit that she is worried about the potential effects of her description of the brutal treatment of women within a family in an insular Palestinian Arab immigrant/refugee community in Brooklyn in her, as she calls it, “semi-autobiographical” novel. This worry is heightened because the portrayal is of people who are part of a broader religious group (Muslim) and an ethnic group (Arab) whose members are held in suspicion and subject to prejudicial treatment.

Despite the possible costs (including her personal risk), she decided that the importance of telling the story of people who have suffered (the men included), must supersede her other concerns. Rum attempts to limit this effect on the view of her religion by making it explicit that the characters in the novel themselves do not think that the oppression is based on religious beliefs.

To provide an additional perspective, consider that societies of all types tend to accept and even rationalize the brutal treatment of women (not to mention the treatment of members of other groups). The universality of this phenomenon casts light on important aspects of this kind of trauma including the means employed to safely make such trauma more tolerable, as illustrated in the excerpt below. 

That said, Rum’s novel describes three generations of a Brooklyn family, with focus on one woman of each generation. Isra, a woman of the middle generation, lives a life of inescapable pain and oppression. After one beating, and hearing of the family’s plan to take her daughters out of public school (thus cementing the path for them to replicate her life), she contemplates how things got to this state. As people do, she looks to attribute blame. The details of her reasoning, making up the passage below, from a letter she does not send, demonstrate one reason why many people in her situation, across cultures, do not escape even if the opportunity may arise.

“Dear Mama,” Isra wrote,

"I don’t understand what’s happening to me. I don’t know why I feel this way. Do you know, Mama? What have I done to deserve this? I must have done something. Haven’t you always said that God gives everyone what the deserve in life? That we must endure our naseeh because it’s written in the stars just for us? But, I don’t understand, Mama. Is this punishment for the days I rebelled as a young girl? The days I read those books behind your back? The days I questioned your judgment. Is that why God is taunting me now, giving me a life that is the opposite of everything I wanted? A life without love, a life of loneness. I’ve stopped praying, Mama. I know it’s kofr, sacrilege, to say this, but I’m so angry. And, worst part is, I don’t know who I am angry with—God, Or Adam" (her husband), "or the woman I’ve become.

"No. Not God. Not Adam. I am to blame. I am the one who can’t be happy. It’s me. There is something wrong with me, Mama. Something dark lurking in me. I feel it from the moment I wake up until the moment I sleep, something sluggish dragging me under, suffocating me. Why do I feel this way? Don’t you think I am possessed? A jinn inside me. It must be.

"Tell me Mama. Did you know this would happen to me? Did you know? Is this why you never looked at me as a child? Is this why I always felt like you were drifting far, far away? Is this what I saw when you finally met my eyes? Anger? Resentment? Shame? Am I becoming like you, Mama? I’m so scared, and nobody understands me. Do you even understand me? I don’t think so.

"Why am I even writing this now? Even if I mailed this off to you, what good would it do? Would you help me Mama? Tell me what you would do? Only I know what you would do. You’d tell me, Be patient, endure. You’d tell me that women everywhere are suffering, and no pain is worse than being divorced; a world of shame on my shoulders. You’d tell me to make it work for my kids. My girls. To be patient so I don’t bring them shame. So I don’t ruin their lives. But don’t you see, Mama? Don’t you see? I’m ruining their lives anyway. I’m ruining them."

Isra paused after finishing the letter. She folded it twice before tucking it between the pages of A Thousand and One Nights. Then she returned the book to the back of the closet, where she knew no one would find it.

I’m crazy she thought. If anyone finds this, they’ll think I’ve gone mad. They’ll know there is something dark inside me. But writing was the only thing that helped… (pp 314-315)


Leon, Rachel (3.12.19) At First, Etaf Rum’s Debut Novel “Felt Like a Very Shameful Thing to Do” Chicago Review of Books https://chireviewofbooks.com/2019/03/12/at-first-etaf-rums-debut-novel-felt-like-a-very-shameful-thing-to-do/

Rum, Etaf (2019) A Woman is No Man. New York: Harper.

Snyder, Rachel Louise (2019) No Visible Bruises. Bloomsbury Publishing: New York.