‘A Woman is No Man’ is simply unputdownable. It is the story of Arab women in America. No, not in America. It is about Arab women who live inside a house that just happens to be situated in America. It doesn’t really matter where their house is situated because their place in this world, as it has been for generations, is to look after the family, be subordinated to the men (i.e. the heads of the house), and cook, clean, and deliver more boy babies for the men. The story, and the plight of women in Arab households, is largely told through the eyes and words of Deya, an 18-year-old who is now of marriageable age, and Isra, Deya’s mother.
The women in this book are a little bit of everyone: Deya, young, innocent, educated, itching to use her worldly knowledge but she also does not know how to. She is impulsive and ambitious, and wants to do things without upsetting her grandparents, but this is a classic ‘Sophie’s Choice’. Isra, a powerful, muted voice; a smart, intelligent, ideal housewife; loving mother; devoted wife; but is considered rebellious (She reads books! The horror!) Her only failure is that she had 4 daughters, and for that she pays a harsh price. Sarah, an enigma, she is her own person, makes her own mistakes, rejects anything that is presented without logic and is the cause for her parents’ headache. Fareeda, a product of her circumstances, is a silent sufferer of everything she knows to be wrong but does not have enough strength and courage in her to do anything about it. She does not know better to fight it and is constantly afraid of consequences. But she tries to, in her own little ways.
The men in these women’s lives are allowed everything. They are in some ways similar to Fareeda, except they are silent witnesses to all the wrongs that the women in their family are exposed to. The reasons for this could be many. They may not want to part with their own privilege or they may be worried that altering set patterns, which have always worked in their favour, does not have much incentive. They are literally allowed everything. To be fair, they are also products of their circumstances, and are under severe pressure to ensure a comfortable life for oneself and their family, but they also, like Fareeda, do not know what actually needs fixing, and how can something so convoluted be fixed at all. They may simply be unaware that working and earning money outside the house and taking care of the household need not be duties allocated by gender. But since the duty of women is to be simply subservient, quiet, and accepting, why go around ruffling feathers and get one’s own hands dirtied in petty homely duties, when culturally they are required to undertake the far more superior task of providing for the family. The only privilege the women are allowed is to be married to them, to be their child, and to be taken care of by them. What does it mean to be taken care of? Make money, bring everything needed for a functioning household, and to keep the stomachs full. If they make the mistake of thinking that their lives will improve because they are moving to a more modern, developed country, they quickly realize, that kitchens everywhere, look mostly the same. They are all women who live life feeling that there is something off, but their culture (and their family) does not allow them enough freedom to tug at that feeling, investigate, and fix what is needed.
The first few paragraphs in this book set the tone for the rest of the book. The way the story is told is to not ask the readers for sympathy, and it most definitely is not whiney, which it has every right to be, to be honest. It makes you think and forces you to ask questions only you can answer: (i) If you are a woman with a certain amount of privilege, how are you using that privilege to help those who are not as fortunate as yourself in building better lives? (ii) If you are facing suppression of any kind, are you speaking up? Are you educating your suppressors, or at least attempting to do so? Are you fighting for your voice to be heard? This book is shouting at the top of its voice – to give strength to those who need it; to remind those who are constantly told that they are powerless that they are, in fact, very powerful; and to show the world what is wrong with simply succumbing to outdated societal values.