A Woman is No Man is a literary fiction written by Etaf Rum. She tells the story of three generations of Palestinian Americans living in Brooklyn, NY. It focuses on three women in one family: daughter Deya, mother Isra, and mother-in-law Fareeda.
The main themes in the story are culture, identity, religious practice, and family. It is a moving glimpse (a single story) into the experiences of women in a conservative Arab-American household.
The Mother – Isra
In 1990, Isra is married off by her family in Palestine at 16 to a man from America, and in a whirlwind, she finds herself in Brooklyn. She didn’t want to get married, but she was hoping to find love in her marriage.
It’s very clearly defined to Isra that her role as a woman is to marry and have children. This is the message that she receives from her society and her mother. The baton moves to her mother-in-law, Fareeda, who insists that she has to get pregnant right away, to give her husband sons.
Isra has 4 kids, all girls. The judgment of the family and the ill-treatment of her husband isolates her, and she becomes depressed. It doesn’t help when her sister-in-law gives birth to a son, as her first child. Where Isra is quiet and unassuming, Nadine is bold. Their marriages could not be more different as well.
After Isra has her fourth daughter, she retreats from her faith. She has trouble talking to God when she feels like she is being punished. The only time she gets to leave the house is with her husband or her in-laws, and never outside the neighborhood. She may be in America, but it’s a very small slice.
Isra’s only escape is through books. She loved books as a child but had given them up to be a wife and mother. Adam’s sister, Sarah, who she builds a relationship with, brings her books from school and they read together some days.
Fareeda came to the US as a refugee. While living in a refugee camp near Ramallah. She is haunted by the death of her firstborn twin daughters, which she accidentally caused by feeding them goat milk. Her greatest act of rebellion was to demand that he bring her his salary each day after finding out he was spending it on alcohol. He submits to her in that one case, and she’s able to save the money to buy plane tickets to move the family to the US.
Fareeda is tough on Adam. She has strong, clear ideas about what it means to be an Arab and the oldest son. She resists the Americanization of her family and tries to keep everyone in their correct role. When her husband beats her, she accepts that this is the right of a husband, just as she saw back home. The first time that Adam beats Isra, leaving physical evidence on her face, Fareeda teaches her how to apply makeup and tells her that she needs to keep her shame private. Where Isra was hoping for a companion, she finds shame upon shame.
The Daughter – Deya
Isra was happy when Deya was born, and she gave her a name that means light. At 18, Deya is about to graduate high school and Fareeda has started arranging for her to meet suitors for her arranged marriage. Deya wants to go to college, but the family doesn’t accept that as an option. She keeps scaring off her suitors, but one of them gets close enough for her to learn that there is a secret in her family. This, combined with a letter from a stranger, takes her down a different path.
Deya skips school to meet the stranger who left her a letter at the front door. She discovers that this person is her aunt Sarah, who ran away from home rather than living the life her parents wanted. Over several visits to Sarah, Deya learns another side of her mother.
From Sarah, Deya learns that she has other choices. Her parents’ story and Sarah’s story unfold. When Deya finds out that her father killed her mother, and then himself, this gives her the leverage she needs to find other answers from her grandparents, who are raising her and her sisters. Fareeda gives her letters Isra wrote to her mother but never sent, a sort of journal, and she learns more about her mother. Through the process of learning about her mother, she also finds out about herself. She wants to be Arab-American and live with her family, but she also wants to attend university and negotiates to be able to do both.
Deya’s last memory of her mother is about a trip to the park. Her mother bundled her and her 3 sisters and took them to the subway, but instead of getting the train, she met Adam there, and they went to the park. In the last chapter of the book, we learn how Isra planned to take her children and leave Adam. She managed to buy tokens and enter the station, but she wasn’t sure what side of the tracks to stand on. She chooses one. A Woman is No Man ends as the R train is entering the station.
What do you think of the ending? Listen to our conversation about two different interpretations of the ending here.
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11 responses to “The Ending of A Woman is No Man”
There should have been a glossary on non American words.
I find I don’t really mind looking up words or I get it from the context. I dont recall being bothered by the non-English words but I know that some readers don’t like that in books
It was Isra who had four daughters not Fareeda
Thanks for catching my error!
I know that the most common understanding of the ending is that Isra ran into Adam as she was about to board the train and that they then went for a picnic. I question that interpretation for two reasons: 1) It would have been a strange time of day for Adam to be catching the train as it was still during the work day, 2) Running into Adam at that precise moment on that precise train isn’t impossible but it is statistically unlikely, and 3) Adam would have been very angry and I can’t imagine him containing his rage long enough to go on a picnic first before going home to beat Isra. That would require a lot of control and he has been shown to be a character who was pretty out of control.
Throughout the book, Deya questioned her own childhood memories, unable to separate out fact from how her imagination or hopes might have filled in the blanks. She could have imagined a picnic where none occurred. Also Isra showed repeatedly that she didn’t have the courage to run away and stay away.
So here is how I interpreted the ending:
In the last sentences of the second to last chapter that tells Isra’s story, she has been severely beaten after challenging Adam about where to send the girls to school. That could have been the fatal beating and she dies there.
The last chapter from Deya’s perspective is about Deya being in the library surrounded by stories. It ends with the sentences “Maybe her story is in here somewhere. Maybe she will find it….But then it hits her….I can tell my own story now, she thinks. And then she does.”
“And then she does” could refer to her re-writing what happened to her mother and her desire to remember her mother as courageous and free, and then by extension her own story.
After Deya I propose that the last chapter isn’t actually written from Isra’s perspective but is Deya’s ficitionalized story of how her mother broke free. A story filled with hope and overcoming tragedy. It is fiction, of course, but we know that Deya first and foremost always loved fiction since childhood – the break from reality, the escapism. Perhaps re-writing her mom’s story was a way of escaping the past, her mother’s choices and who her mother became.
Kelly, I like your ending idea! Thanks for taking the time to write it out in such detail. I’m going to reach out to you by email.
I agree with you completely, Kelly. This was my interpretation as well! In addition to re-writing the last chapter of Isra’s story, Deya then goes on to write her own story, that is, create her own life, her own destiny, something her mother and millions of other women in the Arab culture were unable to do.
Thanks for commenting Roxanne! You may be interested in the conversation between me and Kelley here!
I just finished this book and yes the ending required some remembering from stories told throughout the book. My take on what happened is that Isra finally was running away, and when she left home, Fareeda and Khaled were out but Nadine was in the shower. Likely Nadine discovered Isra and girls were gone, phoned Fareeda and Khaled and Fareeda phoned Adam at his store and told him Isra had just run away (they might have even found the missing money). An enraged Adam left work early (that’s why he was on the train in the afternoon and not night), taking his usual R train home to start searching for Isra. Sadly, Isra happened to be about to get on the R train to flee and as the doors opened, horrible luck that Adam was on that exact car. He probably tried to pass it off to the girls and other people around them in the subway that they had planned to go to the park and in fact did go (Deya’s park memory which is real as Nora has a similar memory) getting girls ice cream and watching the Verrazano bridge. But Adam and Isra were hardly speaking. When they got home, maybe they got girls to sleep and then Adam confronted and then beat Isra very hard in revenge for her running away attempt. He was probably sober too when he beat her and may have even intended to kill her (that’s left unclear) and he did end up killing her. The irony the author uses in that final scene, where Isra thinks she is so close to escaping, but Adam catches her at the last minute on the R train, is just gut-wrenching. And another sad part is that Deya and sisters will never know the full story and truth about what happened since Fareeda and Khaled will almost certainly never tell them Isra ran away and Adam beat her to death for that reason. The book says Fareeda lies when she tells Deya he was just drunk and went too far and Fareeda claims not to know more. The story of Isra taking the girls on the subway is literal and true as Deya describes her own memory of it to Sarah one day in the bookstore. Hope that’s helpful 🙂
Some readers have a different interpretation of the ending. I discuss it with one of them at https://spoiltheending.com/podcast/discussion-of-a-woman-is-no-man-podcast/.
This book and it’s ending will keep me thinking for a long time. All thoughts and interpretations are possible.