Fareeda, a Palestinian woman, may have moved to America with her grandchildren, but she keeps her tradition intact. Fareeda believes in arranged marriages, that sons are more valuable than daughters and women should do all the housework and raise the children. In A Woman Is No Man, (Harper) Etaf Rum follows three generations of the same family in a captivating look at all that must be endured as an Arab woman in America.
While the children Isra and then Deya look to the future in a new country, Fareeda ensnares them with Palestinian customs to escape the guilt of her past. “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.”
Back and forth in time, we meet Isra, a young girl in Palestine who has an arranged marriage to Adam. The 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.
Deya is the teenaged daughter of Isra and Adam who rebels against Fareeda’s demands. She does not want an arranged marriage at 17; she wants to go to college and choose her own partner when she is ready to settle down. “To want what you can’t have in this life is the greatest pain of all.” But her American dreams will be squashed if Fareeda has anything to say about it.
While Fareeda was in Palestine, abuse was common. There was no government protection, and women believed they were worthless and deserved to be beaten. They were denied education and dependent on men for survival. It is easy to see why she would be so strong in her convictions, as well as why Deya would be desperate for escape.
A Woman Is No Man is not just about women, but men, too. Most of the characters stand by their cultural roles (either to be oppressive or to be oppressed), and are challenged to break free from what the old Palestinian society expected.
The men and women in the story are 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 against his parents but finds that he could not.
Similarly, Isra wants her in-laws’ approval and the love of her husband despite not wanting the arranged marriage. The confines of the tradition present challenges that many families new to America are subjected to. Ultimately, the 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.
A Woman Is No Man is available for purchase.
About Etaf Rum:
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. She 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.