“A Woman is No Man”, A Palestinian-American Reflection on the Novel

It should be known I really wanted to be here for this book.  I wanted to be here for all the acclaim its received. I wanted to be here for “a tale as rich and varied as America itself”, and “a love letter to storytelling”.  I wanted to be here for a Palestinian-American author receiving attention from the main stream media for all the right reasons. When I read the novel my heart broke a little every time I turned a page. And just as professional literary critics raved about this book, my initial gut-wrenching reaction is anything but rave reviews for “A Woman is No Man”, and by the final page I knew I could not be here for this novel. 

Even though I wanted to be here for this book I couldn’t. Right now, in 2019 being a minority and a visibly Muslim woman, we bear the brunt of Islamophobia in way that we have not seen since 9/11. Arguably, since 2016 it has been much worse for minorities in America, including Muslims. In recent months it seems as though attacks against visibly Muslim young women have increased. Fatoumata Camara was beaten when she stepped off a bus in the Bronx, while getting jumped religious slurs were yelled at her.  The NYPD failed to investigate the incident as a hate crime, until she (the victim) pursued it herself. East Brunswick, New Jersey records a hian incident with a high school Muslim girl being beaten and called a “terrorist”. Community members had to crowd a board meeting in order to demand action. This may just be the point, our community has to fight harder for our humanity to be recognized, and fiction or not, what is put out into the media either increases our humanity or further dehumanizes us.

Oh but wait … this isn’t a novel about Muslims in America. 

This novel weaves together a three-generational Palestinian-American immigrant to first-generation experience. The family happens to be Muslim. There is a scene in the book where Israa (one of the main characters in the novel) is told she does not have to “wear that thing” by her husband, referring to the hijab. In essence, the character makes it seem as though hijab automatically signals you an outcast, that it is better to take it off. And taking it off is ok and not because you want to but because society dictates to you how you should behave. 

Trigger Warning

As a Palestinian-American who has lived on the brink of assimilation my entire life – this novel pushed me to revisit the struggle I had growing up as a young Palestinian-American woman.  I worked my young adult life to combat negative cultural affliction, and build a life for myself that preserved the beauty of my culture while remaining true to myself and my deen. How do we build a stronger, healthier community from the inside out – not the other way around?  I wanted to be here for this book, but all I could think of while reading was the audience, and impact it is having on the mainstream, American audience.

One of the most conflicting aspects of the novel is the notion that women beyond our community have been showering the novel with praise. It is deeply upsetting when someone else is finding inspiration in our collective trauma. What does this do for our community on the ground? This story felt like it was a blanket narrative for the Palestinian-American community.  A community, as is clearly stated within the novel, continues to deal with the trauma since 1948. However, this trauma, and the mental health ramifications are not unique to our community. They are not unique to the Muslim-American community and they are definitely not unique to the Palestinian-American community. However, in reading the book you would think that marital rape, domestic violence, emotional manipulation and overall suppression of the female mind, body and soul is a commonality within the community.  

Have. You. Met. My. Friends? 

Mixed Reviews Within the Community

If you know me, when I read the book it was the only thing I wanted to talk about – so I spoke with Palestinian-American women. And from those who read the novel there were mixed reviews. I think the consensus was that it was a hard read. I think we all agreed that it’s any author’s prerogative to write what they please. However, the direct ramifications on the community are different. For instance, the aspiring lawyer and seasoned public school educator both agreed that literature that feeds into stereotypes makes systematic change even more difficult. So if you are an individual who is on the ground fighting for equity within the Arab-American, Muslim community, literature that shines a negative light on the community makes it harder to make concrete change within a legal framework.

So yes, everyone is free to say and do what they please – but we are living in a time that our words and actions go beyond ourselves.

My Yama (mother)

The irony in all of this is that my own mother used to tell me “il-mara ma 3umrha bitikba zalama”, which if you translate that English-Arabic writing means – “a woman will never be a man” but she always followed up with “mish lazim”, not necessary.  It is not necessary for you to be a man to conquer your dreams, it is not necessary for you to live outside of your femininity to pursue a life of happiness.  This is a Palestinian woman who came from Fareeda’s generation, who tried the best she could to adapt to a land that was foreign to her because there was no place for her to return.

Media’s Selective Support of Palestinian-American Women

While reading I couldn’t help but think of the Malcolm X quote: “the media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” In my heart of hearts I am an optimist, but I couldn’t help but wonder, did the novel receive so much acclaim because it fed into the negative stereotypes of Palestinians, and for those who can not distinguish between the peoples of the Middle East, Arabs in general – and even further for those who can not distinguish between all of the religious complexities of the region – all Muslims?

Remember when Palestinian-American Congresswoman Tlaib was sworn into Congress, and the backlash received for the #tweetyourthoub campaign? Why is it that when the Palestinian culture was celebrated in a positive light, it was received in a vitriol manner? It doesn’t even stop at a rejection of Palestinian culture, but recently Congresswoman Tlaib testified before Congress on the threats she receives and how these threats are not treated as domestic terrorism. Here is an excerpt from her testimony: “So I’ve been in office for about six months. And when you get something like this, ‘Attention, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and ragheads Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. I was totally excited and pleased when I heard about 49 Muslims were killed and many more were wounded in New Zealand. This is a great start. Let’s hope and pray that it continues here in the good old USA. The only good Muslim is a dead one,” Tlaib said, tearing up. 

Congresswoman Tlaib reading a death threat received in her office during white supremacy hearing.

This is America 2019. This is why I could not be here for the novel. This is why I question the media’s intent in propping up a novel that sheds so much negativity onto the Palestinian-American community, and does not do the same in shedding light on the positives the same community contributes to American society. The greater question I am asking is whether or not this novel would have received the same amount of acclaim if the family in question was from a generic background?

It is simply hard for me to congratulate a success when it comes at the cost of my community. It is hard for me to congratulate a success when I believe that in order for us to rise, we do so as a community, not at the expense of one another, particularly now as members of our community are literally risking their lives to make this nation a better one for us all. 

A Plea to Read

The hardest part about being on the cusp of assimilation is fighting the battle within ourselves. A lesson learned from this experience is the need for our community to read. We need to be aware of what is being published about our community, regardless of where it is coming from and ensure that we are prepared to address what is being put out into the media. Also, if there is truth to whatever is being said, let’s deal with it. Let’s talk about what is happening and create action plans to get better. There are so many of us who are doing amazing things, let us be the light that uplift one another. An no, a woman is no man, and we certainly do not need to be in order to create fascinating change within our communities directly, and our nation as a whole.

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate what you wrote and never want to see anything that could increase Islamophobia in this country. I feel pride and love for the many strong Muslim women who were my students (at university) and are now doctors, lawyers, and community leaders. But I also thought this was an important novel. Every community has its darker stories, and no reader should take this story as THE story of Palestinian-Americans. (I also know enough Muslim and Arab Americans to know that this story is one part of the fabric of a diverse community.) I understand the sensitivity and just look forward to the day when there will not be an understandable need for such caution.

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