Personal Reflections on the Novel by a Palestinian-American reader.
A Woman is No Man is the novel that weaves together a three-generational Palestinian-American immigrant to the 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 the hijab automatically signals you an outcast, that it is better to take it off. And taking it off is okay and not because you want to but because society dictates you how you should behave.
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 it was the audience, and the 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 to our community on the ground? The story feels like it is a blanket narrative for the Palestinian-American community.
A community, as is clearly stated in the novel, continues to deal with the trauma since 1948. However, this trauma and mental health ramifications are not unique to our community. They are not unique to the Muslim-American community and they are 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.
Mixed Reviews in the Community
Do 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. Almost all of us agreed that it’s an 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.
My Yama (mother)
The irony in all of this is that my mother used to tell me– “a woman will never be a man” but she always followed up with “mish lazim”, or not necessary. You don’t need to be a man to conquer your dreams, you don’t need 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 cannot 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 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.
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 to the cost of my community. It is hard for me to congratulate a success when I believe that for us to rise, we do so as a community, not at the expense of one another, particularly now as the members of our community are 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 uplifts one another.
And no, a woman is no man, and we certainly do not need to create fascinating change within our communities directly, and in our nation as a whole.
(This Commentary appeared in the October 2020 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)
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Ahlam Yassin is a high school social studies teacher and a debate coach. She has pursued her Master's degree in Education.