A Woman is No Man
By Etaf Rum
Read Sept 2019
In 1990, in Palestine, Isra’s family receives a suitor, Adam and his mother, Fareeda. Adam’s family had migrated from a refugee camp in Palestine to Brooklyn, NY in 1976. Fareeda brought her son, Adam, to their homeland in 1990 to find a good Arab wife for him. Within a few weeks Isra (17) has been married to Adam (30) and moved into to his parents’ home in Brooklyn. Seven years later, Fareeda and her husband are left to raise Deya and her three sisters after their parent were killed in a car accident. In 2008, Fareeda is focused on finding a suitor for Deya who is torn between loyalty to her family and Arab culture and her desire to have a life beyond being an obedient wife and mother.
Rum tells this story through Deya chapters in 2008-9, Isra chapters progressing through the 1990’s, and Fareeda chapters in both time periods as well as some flashbacks to her earlier years. Through these three perspectives we learn about how three women have struggled with the culture Fareeda is so committed to maintaining even though they now live in America: 1) the only path for a woman is marriage; 2) a wife’s role is to have children, preferably sons, clean, cook and obey her husband and her husband’s parents; 3) the role of the man is to provide for his family and keep his wife and daughters safe, pure, and obedient, beating them if necessary; 4) the role of sons is to support his father in providing for the family while supporting his own and to obey his parents. This lead to the situation that a girl must be married off quickly to both to relieve the father’s financial burden and to ensure she is considered pure and desirable for marriage. Fareeda’s marriage was fully arranged—she met her husband the day they were married. By Isra’s time, the suitor and potential bride did meet before they were married but both sets of parents had authority over the decision. For Deya and Fareeda’s own daughter, Sarah, the mothers sought out potential arrangements but the suitor and potential bride had some involvement in the decision. However, both suitor and potential bride knew they had no choice but to marry someone suitable to their parents so their say was still limited.
Deya she is anxious to go to college before marrying and to marry for love, not by arrangement. She was only seven when her parents died but she knows her mother was very sad and was regularly beaten by her husband. She wants to avoid that fate and wants to know more about her mother to understand the whys behind the situation. Her grandmother wants her to forget the past and agree to a suitor as quickly as possible—most of Deya’s Islamic girls-only school classmates have already made contracts with suitors or are even already married. She even tells Deya that Isra’s problem was that she was possessed by jinn.
I leave the rest of the story for you to discover but will indicate aspects Rum asks us to consider. What barriers must be overcome by an individual, family, or a community to enable their culture to change and allow new roles and responsibilities for both women and men and how to accomplish this? While the story of Isra is clearly heart-breaking, Rum gives us some view of Adam’s situation as well—a man who wants to be an imam but is forced by his family (through the requirement of obedience to his parents) to tend his father’s business, set up his own business, set up a business for his brother, pay for his other brother’s college education and father sons and not the four daughters he and Isra have. Neither Isra nor Adam appears to have much choice in their individual or collective life path nor has either been given any tools which they can use to make their lives or the lives of their children satisfying. Role modelling of their parents hasn’t been helpful but loyalty to family and their culture has been thoroughly taught and learned.
Throughout history, nearly regardless of location in the world, women and men have been initially rooted in a role and responsibility system that makes unmarried daughters a burden to the father and sons an asset to the family both as sources of financial support and a path for keeping wealth in the family. Slowly this system has been cracked in many places and the roles and responsibilities of partners within families is much less rigid and choices are can be made by the partners, not solely dictated by past practices and customs. This reader proposes this trend has allowed for a general lifting of well being for all parties. Unfortunately some cultures retain the oppressive gender roles and responsibilities system, the members of which are literally moving to new locations through immigration as a result of oppression created by man (war waged at the country or “tribe” level) or climate change (i.e. drought). America and other countries receiving immigrants are faced with the dilemma of wanting immigrants to assimilate into their society (whether or not they will allow them to become citizens (!)) and recognizing, to some extent, that immigrants shouldn’t be completely stripped of their culture as a result. How then to handle the situation of Fareeda’s family whose culture includes wife beating as acceptable? How then to challenge the value of loyalty to family when that family’s culture teaches and advocates practices unacceptable to other parts of society.
Rum’s story suggests that the individual plays the critical role. Individuals can muster their strength to challenge. Individuals can mentor, help, support other individuals in their fight to challenge and break ground for themselves or their children. This too is a universal truth—individuals helped individual slaves find a path to free states, individuals help other battered women find safety, individuals help other alcoholics break free of their disease. Individuals have responsibility to find strength for themselves and then have a responsibility to help others. Then individuals can become a movement.
Read this book to become aware of a culture that remains present in our own country and in other places. Become aware of the challenges these individuals face. Become an individual open to “the other story”. Grow.