Updated: May 18, 2021
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Note: This article contains spoilers.
Colonialism has been one of the most significant enablers of gender-based violence. Privileging men on the one hand, it also targeted women directly through sexual violence and indirectly by placing them under the burden of violence and restriction in the name of protection against colonial incursions. Etaf Rum’s novel, A Woman is No Man explores this narrative. Spanning across three generations, the storyline at first glance seems like intergenerational narratives around domestic violence. Engage deeper, and you find that the real focus is on how colonialism and occupation have perpetuated (and continue to perpetuate) inter-generational trauma.
Isra, a 17-year-old girl, marries Fareeda’s son Adam, in 1990. She moves to Brooklyn, New York, and struggles to navigate life in a loveless marriage alone, while bearing the brunt of being a mother and a daughter-in-law to a conservative family. In 2008, her daughter, Deya, has to balance her life as a high schooler while also keeping marriage at bay even as her grandmother Fareeda furiously forces her into meeting potential suitors. Fareeda’s own narrative as a refugee from Palestine is one of displacement, traversing an arc that starts with facing domestic violence and being a victim, to asserting her power and reclaiming her control while being a purveyor of the patriarchy in itself.
A family that was forcibly displaced from their own home in Palestine, is forced to seek a better life in a land far away. This means having to give up on everything that is familiar to them: their way of life, their language, and their culture. While culture may be patriarchal or sanction patriarchy – no denying this of any culture, for that matter – it finds a catalyst in colonialism to become all the more rigid. A family that is displaced is also holding on to the last dregs of its culture: especially a family that comes from a community that is constantly subject to apartheid, occupation, and ethnic erasure. Stereotypical gender roles (that exist across all cultures world over and aren't specific to people of colour) automatically imply that the onus to keep the culture intact fall on women. As Fareeda herself says, “It doesn’t matter where we live. Preserving our culture is what is most important.”
Consequently, she puts pressure on Isra to have a son and dislikes the daughters she gives birth to – because her sons, not daughters, would carry on their family name. She sends Deya and her sisters to an all-girls Muslim school where most of their peers have similar life stories. College, seeking an education, or even employment are not even conceived of: a woman must only get married and have sons, so the family line can continue. Marriage becomes a means to preserve their existence in a foreign land: so they are no longer a memory fast forgotten, but remain fiercely alive in the present.
Of course this is violence on a woman's mind and body: but it's also colonization that's enabling that violence. The struggle for survival and endurance of a bloodline is fundamentally resistance against occupation and apartheid, both of which strive to erase, overwrite, and destroy these very bloodlines. The violence that ensues may have some cultural sanction, but is oftentimes the result of a colonial and capitalist political economy that normalizes apartheid, enables systemic violence, and does not ensure the equal distribution of resources. In holding and purveying this patriarchy, Fareeda, Isra, Sara (Fareeda’s daughter), and Deya (Isra’s daughter), hold several years of unhealed trauma that has its roots in occupation, displacement, and apartheid. Anyone who breaks away from this cycle has to give up her family: becuase in a community that is doing all it can to hold the broken pieces of a displaced life values honour, reputation, and shame above most else.
The American Dream is not for migrant women, as Isra realizes. But it is not for migrant men, either, it seems. Primogeniture places the onus for subsistence on the oldest in the family: and in doing so, also places the heaviest burden of trauma. Isra’s husband Adam is worked to the bone so he can provide for his family – and his brothers get to enjoy a freer, easier life in comparison. This goes on in parallel with the pressure to have a son: and as soon as he reaches his breaking point, it begins to show as violence against his wife. Her eventual murder in his hands, and his suicide shortly after only reaffirms the extent to which capitalist yardsticks of productivity and colonialism have played a role – and mental health challenges as a result of the trauma of colonialism simply do not figure in the conversation. The burden of a migrant, as Adam and Isra show, is not only to safeguard their culture, tradition, and identity – which is fast being overwritten in their homelands – but also to conform to the unrealistic thresholds of the host society, just to be able to exist. A key enabler of the colonization and occupation may offer up land for those displaced by these forces: but living in that land comes with a heavy price: capitalist systems, high costs of living, discrimination and marginalization, and racism. The trauma remains intergenerational: as the younger generations find themselves in limbo between two worlds, neither of which seems to accommodate them – or even have place for them.
Colonialism and Western imperialism have defined the idea of conservative to align with ideas they assume form the basis to save women of colour from men of colour. This view also motivates them to masquerade their military interventionist politics as humanitarianism. This rhetoric effectively ignores the role it plays in enabling and normalizing such violence, because it presents colonialism an opportunity to continue to operate: homonationalism and pinkwashing have been significant ways in which the west has pursued interventionism. This leads to the erasure of a people and their lived experiences: and the cycle of trauma remains steadfast without letting up.
As Etaf Rum wrote in a story on her Instagram handle, “This trauma has defined the lives of an entire people, generations who have been living in a war zone for the past seventy years, in exile or under occupation, displaced from their ancestral land and left stateless. We need to understand and encourage the discussion of the collective intergenerational trauma experienced by Palestinians: humiliation, powerlessness, oppression, traumatic threats that are ongoing and enduring. This trauma is still unfolding. It is a daily, lived experience for the Palestinians and it cannot be addressed until the rest of the world recognizes its validity and importance.”