Welcome to the Women for Women International Book Club! This month we’re reading A Woman Is No Man, by Etaf Rum.
This captivating debut novel and New York Times bestseller tells the story of three generations of Arab women and their respective struggles under crushing patriarchal oppression. The largely biographical and ultimately tragic tale takes readers from 1990s Palestine to a Brooklyn neighborhood of Palestinian immigrants in 2008—where an honorable reputation is everything … disgraceful secrets are kept in the dark … and equal rights and gender equality are something women are still fighting for.
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Why A Woman Is No Man is important...
In A Woman Is No Man, Palestinian-American author Etaf Rum draws the reader in as she deftly explores a range of weighty topics—including the immigration experience, misogyny, oppression, domestic abuse, and cultural expectations and taboos—through the eyes of three generations of Arab women.
Fareeda, the novel’s overbearing matriarch, grew up in Palestine. Displaced during a time when women, many already stifled and abused by the men in their families, became further oppressed due to the ongoing conflict—she struggled in refugee camps for many years. Eventually, she and her husband make it to the U.S. and raise their family in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where other Palestinian immigrants also live.
There, Fareeda enforces the values and beliefs she was raised with upon her daughter and daughters-in-law: that there’s no reason for a woman to read, be educated, or hold a job … that physical and verbal abuse a wife endures at the hands of her husband is to be quietly tolerated … that women shouldn’t be in public without a male family member … that marriage, at a very young age, will be arranged between families … and that women should repeatedly bear children until they produce a son—because daughters hold no value.
Throughout A Woman Is No Man, we see the suffering each of the women experiences as they give in to or fight against the pressures to maintain their expected role within the family. As younger generations of women begin to realize their self-worth and the potential for more fulfilling lives beyond the confines of their homes, they are beginning to pave the way for a better future. But it takes incredible courage and sacrifices to make those changes.
Rum’s fictional—yet very real and plausible—novel shines a much-needed light on the lingering effects of generational trauma, as well as Palestinian women’s continued struggles to escape the misogynistic chains that have held them back and kept them silent for so many years.
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Check out the discussion questions for A Woman Is No Man below, and connect with readers on Instagram to share your reactions, thoughts, and questions by using the hashtag #WFWIBookClub, and tagging us with @womenforwomen. We want to hear what you think—share your take on the book with us!
- The structure of A Woman Is No Man alternates character, time, and place. We hear from Isra, Deya, and Fareeda at different points in time and in their family history. What do these alternating points of view, and alternating historical time of the story, allow for a reader?
- In the novel’s opening, Isra’s mother gives her one piece of advice before she is married: “Soon you’ll learn that there’s no room for love in a woman’s life. There’s only one thing you’ll need, and that’s sabr, patience.” What are the ways in which Isra is patient? Is patience something that is a positive or negative experience for her?
- Books are an integral part of the lives of characters like Isra, Deya, and Sarah. What do books, stories, and storytelling mean to these women? Why are they so vital to their lives?
- One of the themes in A Woman Is No Man is choice: having choices and the absence, or feeling like there is an absence, of choice. In what ways does this theme manifest for the likes of Adam, Isra, Deya, and Sarah? How is the presence or absence of choice influential for these characters and their motivations and aspirations? Is choice always a good or hopeful thing to want?
- How does shame function throughout the generations of this family? • What are the ways in which characters in A Woman Is No Man define being a woman? How do these definitions overlap? In what ways do they conflict?
The questions above are selected from Harper Collins’ Discussion Questions. You can find a full list of discussion questions here.