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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