The Plight of Palestinian Women
Writer-on-the-rise Etaf Rum was born in Brooklyn, New York City to a family of Palestinian migrants. Her parents, who grew up in Palestine refugee camps before deciding to settle in the United States, shrugged off every bit of influence in their new environment, adamantly opting to raise their daughter in the conservative traditions of their native Palestine. Just like every Palestinian young woman, her marriage was arranged by her parents. At the young age of 19, when most of her peers were either enrolling in university or contemplating her future, she found herself moving to North Carolina with a stranger she just married.
Drawing from her own experience, Rum made her literary debut in 2019 with the publication of A Woman is No Man. At its heart, it probes the story of three generations of Palestinian women. The first is Fareeda who was born in Palestine but migrated to the United States with her husband, Khaled due to the invasion of Israel and the ensuing refugee crisis. The second one is Isra. She was also born in Palestine but moved to the United States when she married Fareeda’s oldest son, Adam. Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter, acted as the alter ego of Rum.
Deya and her three younger sisters were left to the care of their grandparents after their parents perished due to a “car accident”. Deya, being the eldest and despite being just eighteen years of age, was being pressured by her Fareeda to pick a suitable husband. This is in keeping with the tradition inculcated in the nature of Fareeda and Isra while they were growing up. Influenced by her free-spirited aunt, Sarah, and the libertine philosophies surrounding her, Deya refused to budge to her grandmother’s pressures. What ensues is a battle of generations and a battle of wills.
“Too often being happy means being passive or playing it safe. There’s no skill required in happiness, no strength of character, nothing extraordinary. Its discontent that drives creation the most – passion, desire, defiance. Revolutions don’t come from a place of happiness. If anything, I think it’s sadness, or discontent at least, that’s at the root of everything beautiful.”~ Etaf Rum, A Woman is No Man
The majority of the narrative transpired in Brooklyn, New York, a city that is renowned to be the melting pot of different cultures. In the same spirit, culture and tradition take the center stage in A Woman is No Man. One of the primary questions the narrative dealt with is concerned with carrying out tradition in a progressive or a different environment. It explored the dynamics when the traditional and conservative clashes with the modern and libertarian. The truth is that, wherever we go, we endeavor to keep as much of our identity as we can. We abstain from changes because we think that in immersing in the different, we are forgetting who we are.
This doesn’t always hold true of course, such as the case of Fareeda, Isra, and Deya. Fareeda, who grew up in a conservative background, insisted to raise her children, and grandchildren in the same manner. Sarah, her only daughter, was set against this and rebelled in every way she can. Fareeda was also defined by how she saw daughters, daughters-in-law, and young women in general. She puts a heavy weight on having a son. Isra’s inability to bear a son became a sore point between her and Adam, and consequently, between Isra and Fareeda. Fareeda shunned every liberal philosophy that the Land of the Free has advertised.
Rum extensively explored the state of modern Palestinian women, as daughters, as wives, and as mothers. One line from the novel summarized how daughters have been viewed in a family: “A daughter was only a temporary guest, quietly awaiting another man to scoop her away, along with all her financial burden.” There is a stark dichotomy in the roles each gender had to play. Men and sons were expected to earn for the family whilst wives and daughters-in-law were confined to the house, cooking meals, serving tea, and carrying on with domestic chores.
Each role came with its own pressures. In men, this resulted in substance abuse which later on escalates into domestic abuse. Although it is frowned upon, physical abuse is embraced as a normal way of life. “That was the real reason abuse was so common, Isra thought for the first time. Not only because there was no government protection, but because women were raised to believe they were worthless, shameful creatures who deserved to get beaten, who were made to depend on the men who beat them.”
“But now, reading her books, she was beginning to find a different kind of love. A love that came from inside her, one she felt when she was all alone, reading by the window. And through this love, she was beginning to believe, for the first time in her life, that maybe she was worthy after all.”~ Etaf Rum, A Woman is No Man
At a young age, it was inculcated into the system of Palestinian girls that the ultimate goal in life is finding the right partner, marrying the right man. Despite the challenges and the downside of early marriage, women are always expected to weather the storm. Wives are expected to protect the secrets of their husbands. The husband’s shame is synonymous with the wife’s. At one point, Isra fled from their home but was clueless as to how to proceed that she had no choice to go back.
Whilst the novel revolved mainly on the interweaving stories of three generations of Palestinian women in a contemporary setting, Rum also took some inspiration from the migrant narrative and the refugee crisis. In tackling difficult and heavy subjects such as domestic violence, gender roles, alcoholism, and substance abuse, she rendered the narrative a universal touch.
Literature, reading, and books played a subtle in the story. Both Isra and Sarah loved reading, perhaps a distraction from their confinement. They have bequeathed their love for literature to Deya. It made the story more vibrant; however, it was one facet that was underexplored. Beyond the struggles of Palestinian women, and women in general, hope still springs eternal. The narrative reflected this positive message as it is about finding one’s voice in the din. It is about standing up and challenging conventions in order to usher in change.
The three primary protagonists were also allusions to the progression of the stance we have on tradition. There are those like Fareeda who chose to stick with it. Isra represented the transition phase but is still heavily anchored on tradition. Deya was the spark of hope, the one who opted to deviate from tradition. Through Deya, the intimate voice of Rum reverberated. Deya was the literary representation of Rum and her aspirations.
“She knew she had to teach them how to love themselves, that this was the only way they had a chance at happiness. Only she didn’t see how she could when the world pressed shame into women like pillows into their faces. She wanted to save her daughters from her fate, but she couldn’t seem to find a way out.”~ Etaf Rum, A Woman is No Man
The three generations of women was also a brilliant demonstration of the flow of time. Tradition will always be there but it is not infallible and will always be subject to challenge and scrutiny. But whilst the story of the women showed progression, the representation of males was lacking. Men mostly remained stagnant, showing neither growth nor development. Their blandness and monochromatic personalities were the antitheses to the dynamic women.
Rum had a great message to convey, and she manages to make a point through her writing. The execution, however, was lacking and underwhelming. The exploration of abuse and gender role was heavy-handed, it lacked finesse. At times, the literary parts were forsaken for the social commentary on oppression and domestic abuse. Many a scene was repeated all throughout the narrative, perhaps to further underline the atmosphere of physical confinement, also a main subject in the story. The repetition or reframing of scenes undermined the story.
Despite its glaring flaws, A Woman is No Man remains a timely, relevant, and commendable narrative. It was insightful and moving. The fate of Palestinian women is heartbreaking and the world needs to read more of these Arab experiences, beyond their depiction in movies, and the news. Here’s a quote from the novel about freedom and choice: “No matter how you look at it, I’m still being forced to get married. Just because I’m offered options, that doesn’t mean I have a choice. Don’t you see? A real choice doesn’t have conditions. A real choice is free.“
Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 17%
Writing (25%) – 14%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%
I would have never come across Etaf Rum’s A Woman is No Man had I not read a fellow book blogger’s positive feedback on the book. Rum’s debut work, it is a story that has a very intimate voice and at times, I can feel Deya echoing Rum’s sentiments. Deya, in a way, is her literary conduit, her alter ego. The book is truly memorable and impactful n many ways. It opens the eyes of the public to the plights of Palestine and Arab women in general. Despite its heavy theme, the novel beaconed with hope, and in a way, the author’s dream that her fellow women are freed from the chains that shackle them to the ground.
Author: Etaf Rum
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 337
Genre: Domestic Fiction
Palestine, 1990. Seventeen-year-old Isra prefers reading books to entertaining the suitors her father has chosen for her. Her desires are irrelevant, however – over the course of a week, the naïve and dreamy girl finds herself betrothed, then married, and soon living in Brooklyn. There Isra struggles to adapt to the expectations of her oppressive mother-in-law, Fareeda, and her strange new husband, Adam: a pressure that intensifies as she begins to have children – four daughters instead of the sons Isra is expected to bear.
Brooklyn, 2008. At her grandmother’s insistence, eighteen-year-old Deya must meet with potential husbands, though her only desire is to go to college. Her grandmother is firm on the matter, however: the only way to secure a worthy future for Deya is through marriage to the right man. But fate has a will of its own, and soon Deya will find herself on an unexpected path that leads her to shocking truths that will force her to question everything she thought she knew about her family, the past, and her own future.
Set in an America at once foreign to many and staggeringly close at hand, A Woman is No Man is a story of culture and honor, secrets and betrayals, love and violence. It is an intimate glimpse into a controlling and closed cultural world, and a universal tale about family and the ways silence and shame can destroy those we have sworn to protect.
About the Author
Etaf Rum was born on May 8, 1989 in Brooklyn, New York City to a Palestinian parents who grew up in Palestinian refugee camps before migrating to the United States.
Raised in a traditional environment, her marriage was arranged when she was still young. At the age of 19, she moved to North Carolina where she gave birth to her daughter and two years later, a son. While pregnant with her first child, she enrolled at the North Carolina State University, initially pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Literature. She would later on pursue a Bachelor of Science in Philosophy and a Master of Arts n American and British Literature and Philosophy from the same institution.
A self-confessed lover of Sylvia Plath’s work, Rum’s literary career begun with the publication of her debut novel, A Woman is No Man which echoed her experiences. She is currently working on a second novel she hopes to be published in 2021. Divorced from her husband, Rum currently resides in Rocky Mount, North Carolina with her children.