This is a captivating story of three women of different generations in the same family. In A Woman Is No Man, Etaf Rum shows us the challenges of Palestinian immigrants who are “torn between two cultures and struggling to start anew”. She reveals the truth about life and all that must be endured as an Arab woman in America.
Back and forth in time, we meet Isra, a young girl in Palestine who has an arranged marriage to Adam. The young couple moves to Brooklyn to start a family; Isra is lonely and afraid but hopeful she can win over the hearts of her new husband and mother in law. Fareeda, Adam’s mother, is a strong woman with stringent rules and specific ways of doing things. Along with shouldering the sins of her past, Fareeda’s respect for tradition and customs influences her actions and interactions with her sons, their wives and her grandchildren. Deya is a teenager living in Brooklyn with her three sisters and Palestinian grandparents. Her parents, Isra and Adam, died when she was 7, and she is being raised with the customs from Palestine by her grandmother, Fareeda.
Deya does not want an arranged marriage at 17, she want to go to college and choose her own partner when she is ready to settle down, but her American dreams will be squashed if Fareeda has anything to say about it.
“To want what you can’t have in this life is the greatest pain of all .”
Fareeda believes in arranged marriages, that sons are more valuable than daughters, and women should do all the housework and raise the children. She is haunted by her past and chooses to stick by her traditions. “Fareeda knew her granddaughter could never understand how shame could grow and morph and swallow someone until she had no choice but to pass it along so that she wasn’t forced to bear it alone. “
In Palestine, abuse was common. There was no government protection and women believed they were worthless and deserved to be beaten. They were dependent on men, had no education and were filled with so much shame. The hurt, disappointment, anger and violence got passed down until the new generation stood up for their rights as American women.
Author Etaf Rum created characters strong in their convictions, yet weakened under the pressure of deep struggles…and I felt deeply for all of them. I wanted Isra to find love in her marriage, approval from her mother in law, joy in motherhood and her daughters, and purpose in her life. Fareeda deserved to feel at peace with her choices of the past and her granddaughter, Deya, had the right to an education and to make her own choices regarding a life partner.
A Woman Is No Man was not just about women, but men, too. Most of the characters stood by their cultural roles (either to be oppressive or to be oppressed), and were challenged to break free from what the old Palestinian society expected. The men and women in the story were equally weak; Isra’s husband, Adam, in accepting his position of strength as head of the family, found no way out. Suffering under the pressures of being the first born son, he could have spoken up, but he wanted to please his parents. Similarly, Isra wanted her in-laws’ approval and the love of her husband, despite not wanting the arranged marriage. Struggle within the confines of the traditions to raise a family in this country presented challenges that many families new to America are subjected to. Ultimately, individuality and confidence the younger generations develop, being exposed to life as Americans, gives them the courage to bend the family rules and go for what they want.
Etaf Rum gives us a peek into Arab traditions, superstitions, and customs, conveying the challenges of teaching the old ways to the new generations. She also provides us with a good look into why Palestinian women may want to take on a more American approach to life to increase their self worth and independence.
I could not put this book down, loved it and highly recommend it…great for a book club discussion!
Watch Jenna Bush’s interview with Etaf Rum on The Today Show. and if you enjoy immigrant stories, I also recommend reading A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.
About the Author
The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Etaf Rum was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She has a Masters of Arts in American and British Literature as well as undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and English Composition and teaches undergraduate courses in North Carolina, where she lives with her two children. Etaf also runs the Instagram account @booksandbeans and is also a Book of the Month Club Ambassador, showcasing
her favorite selections each month. A Woman Is No Man is her first novel.