A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

Isra has the dreams typical of a young teenager, but hers, she finds, are thwarted time and again, by her mother’s insistence on her adhering to the strict rules of her people. Traditional Palestinian women do not have choices – they are born into the world as disappointments – disappointments first that they are not boys, and disappointments second that they must be groomed forever to be married off as soon as they can be readied. She has been told this ever since she can remember and even though she has dreams of romance, fostered by the books she sneaks into her home, she knows, deep down, that her fate is as her mother’s – she will be a wife, a mother, and no more.

Fast forward, we also follow her daughter, Deya, who is struggling with the same challenges. She is an avid reader, wants desperately to attend college rather than just to get married, but the grandmother who is raising her is insistent that she must marry. This is what traditional Palestinian women do and if she does not, the whole family is shamed. It would affect not only her but her younger sisters as well. And then where would they be? Is Deya trapped? Is Isra trapped? How is one woman’s fate tied to the other?

While I found this story a bit repetitive and almost as predictable, it was, at that same time, a powerful dive into the lives of women of this insular world. Just as with women in extreme Orthodox Jewish communities, women in these isolated Muslim communities are treated as if they have only one purpose – to serve the men in their lives and to procreate to produce, ideally, more men. They are not valued as individuals but rather for their ability to cook, clean, and to service the men. Worse, because they are not valued, they are also not treated with respect and the physical, verbal and psychological abuse they endure can be overwhelming, if not fatal. Of course, this does not represent all Palestinians – just as it does not represent all Jews – but there are communities of insular, extremely religious sects for which this does apply and it is important for these issues to be brought to light. Not just for the young women whose lives are at risk, but for society as a whole.

What I found so fascinating was how very similar the cultures are – Palestinians and Jews in their extreme, religious forms. While politically there are so many tensions between Palestinians and Israelis, religiously there are so many parallels. To those who hold on to the strictest interpretation of their religious texts, whether the Torah or the Quran, life remains as it was centuries ago. There is no value to educating women because they have a specific and limited role in the home and the community and must be guarded at all times. The purity of the woman is the ultimate value and if she stains that in any way (and any stain is her fault, even when it’s not)- even if it is by the pursuit of education alone – that brings a shame upon the family that is a black mark and taints her (and any further siblings’, of course) ability to marry, her ultimate purpose. Any adverse event is covered up in secrecy, denied, and buried so as to avoid any shame to the family – again, to maximize the marriageability of the children.

And escape is hard – because they are not given any opportunity to develop skills that they can use in the outside world.

I think this is an important read to expose this underbelly of a culture that can be colorful and beautiful and otherwise rich with historic value.