A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum (2019)



Seventeen-year-old Isra would rather go to college than get married, but in 1990 Palestine, that’s not an option. Eighteen years later, her daughter, Deya also wants college over marriage, but even in Brooklyn, NY, in 2008, it’s a no go, especially because Deya’s grandparents are in charge of her destiny. In their Arabic culture and Muslim religion and family tradition, a woman does not have the options or power or freedom of a man. This three generational family story illustrates the clash between holding onto the past vs embracing the future and allowing “family honor” to take a lesser role. But for families across the globe, that’s a struggle, and the 21st century hasn’t made that struggle any less fierce. These women are still living with fear, isolation, abuse, and shame.  It was interesting–and heartbreaking–to read this story only a month after reading Persian Girls, set a few decades earlier, and to to be watching Unorthodox, the Netflix series set in present day, illustrating these very same issues in the Hasidic Jewish culture, also in Brooklyn, NY. It’s so easy so assume that arranged marriages and a life of servitude to marriage and motherhood is not relevant to anyone living in the US. My 9th graders think it was limited to Romeo and Juliet, set in 1400s Italy.  What they don’t realize is that it is alive and well in many cultures and religions within our country today.

From the NYT Review, we understand the author’s position. She’s an Arab American, born and raised in Brooklyn, writing about her culture:  “It’s a devil’s bargain: Speak and add inadvertent fuel to the ever-smoldering fire of anti-Arabism — or don’t speak and add another layer of silence.” That’s a tough choice. Expose your own culture to the modern world or say nothing and allow so many women to suffer in silence. In an interview at the end of the book, the author acknowledges that in writing this semi-autobiographical story, she’s paid a high price. Much of this was her story, and in writing it, she has broken her own silence. This is a first novel, and the writing is not the best, but the story is compelling–enough so that I read the book in two days.

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