A Woman Is No Man: A Novel

by Etaf Rum

Hardcover, 2019

Call number



Harper (2019), 352 pages


Three generations of Palestinian-American women in contemporary Brooklyn are torn by individual desire, educational ambitions, a devastating tragedy, and the strict mores of traditional Arab culture. Palestine, 1990. Seventeen-year-old Isra prefers reading books to entertaining the suitors her father has chosen for her. Over the course of a week, the naïve and dreamy girl finds herself quickly betrothed and married, and is soon living in Brooklyn. There Isra struggles to adapt to the expectations of her oppressive mother-in-law Fareeda and strange new husband Adam, a pressure that intensifies as she begins to have children--four daughters instead of the sons Fareeda tells Isra she must bear. Brooklyn, 2008. Eighteen-year-old Deya, Isra's oldest daughter, must meet with potential husbands at her grandmother Fareeda's insistence, though her only desire is to go to college. Deya can't help but wonder if her options would have been different had her parents survived the car crash that killed them when Deya was only eight. But her grandmother is firm on the matter: 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 about her family--knowledge that will force her to question everything she thought she knew about her parents, 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. -- Provided by publisher.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ecataldi
i was a freaking EMOTIONAL WRECK after reading this! It's heartbreaking, unflinching, and damned powerful. A Woman is No Man tells the story of three generations of Palestinian American women; two who immigrated to the US and one who was born there. The story centers on Irsa, a young woman who is married off to an American Muslim, she is terrified to leave behind her family and the only life she's ever known, but she has dreams that life will better for women in America. Maybe they wil be loved and respected and given opportunities; something she never had growing up. America proves to be another let down though her new family is just as strict as the one she left behind. She is expected to clean and cook all day and bear her husband sons. There is no room for growth or freedom; she can't leave the house, make friends, read, or relax. She is constantly bossed around by Fareeda, her husbands mother, who makes sure that Irsa knows her place. It's a man's world and she shouldn't get any foolish notions in her head. She gets pregnant pretty quickly and everyone is annoyed when she births a girl. A useless girl. Then she goes and has three more girls. She and her daughters are the shame of the family, Irsa's husband starts beating her. The other two perspectives in the story are from Fareeda, her mother in law, and Irsa's eldest daughter, Deya. Reading this book you wish it was taking place in the past, how could something so unfair and inhumane take place in today's society? Are women really so unappreciated and abused. The ending was especially heartbreaking. A necessary read that will break your heart.… (more)
LibraryThing member BettyTaylor56
I loved this book. Haunting, tragic, heartbreaking, beautifully written. A story of three generations of voiceless Palestinian women. A look into the lives of conservative Arab women living in America. The love of a mother for her children. The struggle between cultural ties and assimilation. The futility of hope. Regret. Courage. Engaging characters.

The book opens in Palestine as Isra is being married off to a Palestinian man living in America. Then the story moves to Brooklyn for the remainder of the novel. I was pulled into the story from the first few pages. The story alternates in perspective – Isra, the main character; Fareeda, Isra’s mother-in-law; and Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter. Following cultural expectations, Deya’s mother was forced to marry and now Deya’s grandparents are trying to force marriage upon Deya, but Deya wants to go to college instead. Deya has been raised to believe that her parents died in a car accident, but into her life comes a stranger who is the catalyst for the collapse of the house of lies Deya has grown up in.

I was so immersed in the story that I could feel the frustration and hopelessness these women felt. The heartbreak when Isra’s mother tells her that love has nothing to do with marriage. The futility when Isra found that life was no better for her in America and that, indeed, Marriage had nothing to do with love. Rum also wrote about the cultural expectations that are placed on the men which often leads them to feeling trapped and taking their frustrations out on the women. Deya even turned to her Islamic studies, looking for an explanation, and was told that “When we accept that heaven lies underneath the feet of a woman, we are more respectful of women everywhere. That is how we are told to treat women in the Quran.” The clash of culture and religion.

I loved how Isra, Sarah, and Deya all found comfort and temporary escape in books. They found hope that they could change their lives.

“She’d been raised to think that love was something only a man could give her. For many years she had believed that if a woman was good enough, obedient enough, she might be worthy of a man’s love. 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, just maybe, she was worthy.” (Isn’t that beautifully written?)

Caution: There are scenes of domestic abuse that may disturb some. This kind of abuse can be found in any culture, now just the culture portrayed in this novel. Portions are very difficult to read, but others are a stunning portrait of hope. If you enjoyed “A Thousand Splendid Suns” you must read this book. Both books featured women who were abused yet proved themselves stronger, smarter, and braver than their men. Yes, indeed, “a woman is no man”. Like “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, this book is sure to linger in your thoughts.

I would like to have given this book a 5-star rating but the ending seemed a bit off, leaving me trying to piece it together. I think you will understand if you read it, and I do hope you will. Overall, it is a superb novel.

I received an early copy of this novel. All opinions are my own.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
A look inside an embedded patriarchal culture. Isra loves to read, books show her a wider world than the insular one where she lives. Custom, however, dictates that women cannot continue with their schooling but must marry instead. When a Palestinian family, one who now make their home in New York, travel back to Palestine to find a bride for their eldest son, Isra finds herself married. She wants to fall in love, to be loved and to have more freedom. She is hoping in America to find a three.

A culture, where a man is allowed to do anything, where a woman is just a possession, everything she has or does is at the mercy of a man. The worst thing a woman can do is bring shame on her family.
Isra is someone whose hopes and fears, tug at the heartstrings. Wanting more, she must settle for less. Her eldest daughter will take on the challenge of being allowed to make ones own decisions. So the story alternates between the two, with an occasional chapter narrated by Fareeda, Isras mother in law. We learn all three of their stories.

Isra's plight drew me in, her daughters made me hopeful. I finished this, looked around at my pile of books and thought how luck i was that no one stopped me from reading. So lucky. This was at times a very emotionally draining story, but I think a necessary one. A look inside what is for many a life of darkness. This let's a little light in, by making us aware of what goes on inside some of these closed cultures.

ARC by Harper Collins.
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LibraryThing member deslivres5
Heartbreaking/inspiring story of three generations of women from a Palestinian family that immigrated to Brooklyn, NY, told in alternating chapters through the voices of different family members during different time frames.
I adored the theme throughout the novel that books can be life changing.
LibraryThing member tuf25995
I am not sure I have ever read a more tragic, heartbreaking story than this one. Devastating and masterfully executed, in my opinion.
LibraryThing member Nancyjcbs
A Woman Is No Man is an incredibly difficult, heart wrenching novel by a new author. Etaf Rum is a Palestinian woman who was raised in an oppressive, abuse filled home. This novel is a portrayal of the conservative community of Palestinians. Her experiences with oppression, domestic abuse, limited opportunities and an arranged marriage form the novel.

The novel focuses on three generations of women. Fareeda, her daughter Sarah, her daughter-in-law Isra and Isra's daughter Deya are the main characters. The responsibilities of these Arab women, their sense of duty, their acceptance of their fate, their sense of shame are clearly and beautifully presented. It's impossible not to feel great empathy while also being unable to comprehend their lives.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
The utter misery and violent outcomes of being a woman in some Arab cultures spans three generations in this affecting novel. In the 1970s, Fareeda is forced to marry at 16 in a Palestinian refugee camp. After giving birth to twin daughters, to her husband's great disappointment, and then having the girls die of malnutrition, the family struggles to save enough to migrate to the US, where the family grows to include three sons and a daughter. Their Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Arab neighborhood is wholly and strictly judgmental on the low status of women, continuing the tradition of forcing them into early arranged marriage right after high school and encouraging the beating women and girls who rebel at their restrictions to the drudgery of home and children.

In 1990, Isra, a young Palestinian girl, is chosen as a bride for Fareeda's son Adam and moves into the family home in Bay Ridge, where she gives birth to four girls and is constantly physically and emotionally abused. Adam, as eldest son, works endless hours to support multiple family businesses and takes out his misery on Isra. In an intense depression, she believes herself to be possessed by a jinn.

In 2008, with her parents Isra and Adam both dead, eldest daughter Deya finds out the truth about her mother's life and wrestles with her own fate. Can she be the change agent for herself, her sisters, and her grandmother Fareeda, still anchored by her own self-loathing and complicity in the abuse?

The author grew up in Bay Ridge and her abhorrence of the treatment of women in the Arab culture here and in Palestine is unmistakable. An American reader may be challenged to sympathize with her outrage without being too judgmental about the traditions of a different culture, but this level of mistreatment can never be excused or supported. This is a most powerful indictment, well told by a writer on a mission.

Quote: “Isra was seized to confess, at last, the fear that circled her brain in endless loops: that she would do the same thing to her daughters that Mama had done to her. That she would force them to repeat her life.”
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LibraryThing member MM_Jones
This debut novel from a child of immigrants tells the story of three generations of Palestinian women. But more than an immigrant story, it is rather a universal story, the balance between cultural continuity and individual freedom. Sometimes sad, sometimes violent, but well worth the read. I did find the character of Sarah jarring, lacking the authenticity of the other voices.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookczuk
Taught me a lot, but contains so much sadness.
LibraryThing member bostonbibliophile
A downer, but a rewarding read nonetheless, about generations of Palestinian women trying to break the cycle of abuse and repression and their slow struggle towards self-respect and self-love.




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