Growing up as one of nine siblings in a conservative Palestinian-American, Muslim family in Brooklyn, NY, Etaf Rum knew her family expected her life to revolve around marriage and child-rearing — but she had other plans. Rum was determined to pursue her education, but she didn't want to disappoint her parents, so at 19, she entered into an arranged marriage. Armed with an unwavering sense of determination, she had one condition for her new, arranged relationship: she'd be allowed to attend college.
"At 19, I was doing what I was supposed to do in terms of following the path that my parents and the people in my community were on," Rum told POPSUGAR. "At the time, I didn't think anything of getting married at 19. I thought it was a perfectly normal thing to do."
Based on her own experience, she said, she questioned what a woman's role should be, grappling with how she could achieve her goals while keeping her community's values in mind — and while raising the two children she'd had before age 23.
"In the back of my mind, I had fears about a woman's place in the community based on what I'd seen growing up and the limits placed on women as opposed to men within my own family," she said. "Even though I had an arranged marriage very young — and grew up in a very sheltered household — I felt I could still break the cycle if I didn't allow myself to be subjugated, oppressed, or treated unfairly based on my gender."
"No matter where I went, I was condemned and shamed for writing this book and speaking about these very real issues, whereas a man who did the exact same thing as me was praised."
Rum enrolled in North Carolina State University while she was pregnant with her first child. Forced to juggle motherhood and her schoolwork, Rum pushed through, hellbent on breaking the cycle she saw her own mother go through. "I had this idea that if I didn't go to college, I was going to end up like my mom," she explained. "I remember my mother would always say that one of the reasons why her and my dad would fight was because he had promised her that when she came to America, he'd let her go to college. She didn't end up going. She just stayed home. She'd always throw that in his face, saying, 'You said I can go to college, I thought I was coming to America to go to college, and now I'm stuck here.'"
It was from the very notion of whether or not women like Rum could experience true independence that A Woman Is No Man ($16) was born. Centering on Palestinian-American women from three generations — Deya, Isra, and Fareeda — the novel dives into the roles and expectations of women in the Arab community. Set in Brooklyn, it gives readers a sense of how traditional ideas and modern feminism intertwine, illuminating the challenges many first- and second-generation immigrants go through today.
Despite living under the same roof, each woman navigates various issues unique to their specific generation. Fareeda, the grandmother and matriarch of the household, is obsessed with maintaining her family's reputation to a dangerous fault. Isra, Fareeda's meek daughter-in-law and Deya's mom, is stuck in a loveless arranged marriage with an abusive husband from whom she can't escape. And Deya, Isra's daughter and Fareeda's teenage grandchild, spends her days trying to figure out how to get an education while sitting through suitor meetings for her looming arranged marriage. While all part of the same narrative, the three perspectives show how different generations negotiate power in patriarchal societies.
"One of the reasons why I wrote this book is because I really wanted to understand why the characters in this novel — or the characters in my own life — did the things that they did," she said. "Whether it was why they were abusive or it was why they were unable to see the other person's perspective. The men in the story are also victims of this cycle — of being forced to kind of live a life that they didn't really want to live — and then maybe forcing others down paths they don't want any part of."
While characters like Fareeda — who is overbearing and often cruel — were easy for her to create, she admitted that coming to terms with Deya, Fareeda's education-driven and independent granddaughter, was difficult for personal reasons.
"It was hard for me to remember how I felt at 18 until I put myself back there," Rum explained. "I began writing this book at 26 or 27, so I was a decade away from my experience at that age. It was hard for me to put myself in her shoes, and when I did look at the world using her perspective, I was disgusted. I thought: 'Oh my God, I can't believe I was so stupid.' I think I was kind of ashamed of not standing up for myself like Deya did. It was really hard to come to terms with that."
"Even if you live in silence, you're going to hear those voices inside telling you that you're shameful and you've done something wrong. The only way to free yourself from those voices is to write your truth no matter what."
Although A Woman Is No Man became a New York Times bestseller, hit the ninth spot on Amazon's Bestseller List, and was picked by Jenna Bush Hager as her book club's May 2019 read, not everyone in Rum's life was thrilled with her first novel. While Rum is hardly the first widely read Middle Eastern writer — Khaled Hosseini has also written extensively and critically about social challenges in Middle Eastern culture — she received significantly more pushback for her work compared to her male counterparts.
"No matter where I went, I was condemned and shamed for writing this book and speaking about these very real issues, whereas a man who did the exact same thing as me was praised," Rum explained. "It's interesting how deep the shame goes for women. They're not even allowed to speak their truth, and if a man does it, then that truth is somehow better."
Regardless of what people within her community think about her novel, Rum said writing a book was truly an awakening for her. At the same time Rum sold her book, she also left her husband in an effort to lean into her work and find her voice. "I got divorced after completing A Woman Is No Man," she said. "Writing this story was very therapeutic and gave me the courage to pursue a divorce. I couldn't live with myself knowing that I was too afraid to stand up for myself and pursue the very things I believed in and wanted for my fictional characters."
Since her divorce, Rum has channeled all her energy into her next book — which is supposed to hit shelves in 2021 — and raising her children. And despite the backlash from some members of her community, Rum said she still considers herself a Muslim woman through and through. Now, she has advice for women who are fearful of sharing their stories with the world.
"Even if you live in silence, you're going to hear those voices inside telling you that you're shameful and you've done something wrong," she said. "The only way to free yourself from those voices is to write your truth no matter what. The most powerful stories come from a place of truth, and I think everyone should be able to write that without fear."