A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum, Blog Tour
“A bad day? Are you kidding me? You know domestic abuse is illegal here, right? If a man ever put his hands on me, I’d call the cops right away. It’s one thing for our parents to hit us, but after marriage, as a grown woman?”
Isra kept her gaze averted. “Husbands beat their wives all the time back home. If a woman called the cops every time her husband beat her, all our men would be in jail.”
Every now and then a book comes along that impacts me so much it changes who I am as a reader and as a person. It leaves me reeling, it haunts me, it compels me to dig deeper, to stop everyone I know and tell them “if you only read one book this month, THIS IS THE BOOK YOU NEED TO READ.” A Woman Is No Man is such a book. Etaf Rum has bravely lifted the veil on a culture that is not readily accessible to many of us and provided a glimpse of what life is like for millions of women around the world as well as right here in America. According to the UN Women for Arab States website, 700 million women alive today were married before they turned 18 and 1 in 3 women worldwide have been physically abused by intimate partners. Rum lays bare on the page this harsh reality through the eyes of three Palestinian-American women and the result is one of the most gripping, heart-rending stories that I have ever read.
Isra is whisked away from Palestine when she is chosen to marry Fareeda’s son and live with him and his extended family in New York City. She arrives in America filled with hopes and dreams that her marriage will be one of love and her new life full of opportunity. She quickly learns that even though her location has changed, how she is viewed has not and she is forced to stay within the confines of the family’s small home, cooking and cleaning and making every effort to produce more sons for the family. She longs for literature and an education and sinks in to a deep depression as she struggles to hold on to the hope that her mother-in-law will soften in how she sees her, that her husband will grow to love her and that her family will accept her daughters and love them instead of seeing them as burdens.
Fareeda is the grandmother of the family and though she has lived in America for decades, she is determined to carry on her culture’s views and beliefs at great cost to her daughter, daughters-in-law and granddaughters. She strictly reinforces oppressive traditions maintaining that the women in her family need to “forget all this American nonsense about love and respect… You need to make sure our culture survives, and that means teaching a woman her place.” To read a matriarchal figure continually inflict verbal abuse while reinforcing to the women who were her own kin that they were worthless unless they were producing sons and keeping a clean house made my blood boil. Fareeda’s role in the suppression of Isra and Sarah was so hard for me to digest, particularly when her own secrets finally come to light and she revealed that “she saw the chain of shame passed from one woman to the next so clearly now, saw her place in the cycle so vividly….. she passed her shame down so that she wasn’t forced to bear it alone.”
Then there is Deya, the feisty daughter of Isra and a first generation Palestinian-American. She loves to read, she loves learning at school and she has big dreams for herself and her life. Deya struggles under the thumb of Fareeda as she tries to reconcile her grandmother’s strict cultural views with the American life that she is immersed in on a daily basis. Deya also longs for her parents , particularly her mother, as Isra and her father were tragically taken from her in a car accident when she was a very young girl. Here is where Rum’s skill as an author shines in the most unexpected way. In the midst of an already gripping story of betrayal, violence and oppression, Rum weaves a mystery in to the plot that once solved will leave your jaw on the floor and your heart pounding in your chest.
I sat in stunned silence with tears streaming down my face for at least ten minutes after I read the ending. I finally understood why Etaf wrote of her fears in putting this story out in to the world and how incredibly brave she is in doing so. I had so many questions for her… Was what she had written her reality in her own family? Did she too have an arranged marriage? What advice would she give to women who are raising daughters in this type of environment? How was she protecting her own daughter from the cycle of shame and abuse? My questions quickly turned to worry for her as I wondered if she had received threats, and if she had, was she safe?
Etaf released an essay on LitHub addressing some of these questions the day her book was released (to read the full piece, click here). She did not owe any of us this glimpse in to her personal life and yet she allowed us in anyway - fighting back against the cycle of shame, speaking her truth and claiming a new path for her children. She demonstrates once again that there is POWER in letting your voice be heard, in taking control of the narrative of your life, in putting your bravery on display for all to see… to witness this occur on the page has been been incredibly compelling for me. This story caused such a visceral reaction in me as a mother, as a woman and as a human being that I honestly don’t know if I will ever recover from it. And that’s a good thing. We need more stories like this on our shelves so when that young woman works up the courage to walk in to a book store and asks, as Isra did, “Can you help me find something written by a woman? A book about someone like me?” that she will be directed towards rows and rows of books and she will find herself among the pages. Thank you, Etaf, for showing countless women that they are seen, they are heard and that there is hope.
To order a copy of A Woman Is No Man, click here.
To read and listen to Etaf’s interview with NPR, please click here.
If you are in an abusive relationship and need help, please click here.
It has been an honor to get to know Etaf through Instagram and I am so incredibly grateful to Harper Books for allowing me the opportunity to promote her extraordinary work. ALL THE STARS for this courageous debut. It easily earns a spot on my list of favorite books of all time.