Woman at Point Zero
Feminism has stipulated a new dimension to the world of women’s identities. It has transformed the perception of life, but women across the globe still face discrimination based on gender and are subject to male oppression and suppression. Unfortunately, female oppression is deep-seated in the culture of the societies that ensure the continuation of patriarchal control. As a result, it is almost impossible for women to seek liberation wherever this oppression is happening, because to do so would challenge the age-old traditions and customs of the people. In the book Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi effectively debunks the culturally dominated norms and traditions of patriarchal authority. Relying on her experience as a prison psychiatrist during the 1970s, the author questions a xenophobic culture that dehumanizes women. She primarily aims to consolidate the marginalized and give a voice and agency to the voiceless. Using Firdaus’ battles against male dominance listed in the novel and those of her own with the Egyptian government, El Saadawi draws a distinct line between society and the individual.
In patriarchal societies like that of Egypt two centuries ago, women were discriminated by rules and culture. In the early strides of the 19th century, women had no freedom, no economic ability, and were coerced to complete domestic tasks while men held positions of power and prestige. Toward the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, feminist consciousness was on the rise as Egyptian women in traditional domestic situations were becoming increasingly disillusioned with their plight. For the first time, women publicly demanded both social and political rights that had been withheld in Egypt's traditionally patriarchal society. Egyptian women today have made major strides in parliament and in fighting female genital mutilation, but the deeply religious society remains very much rooted in conservative traditions. Egypt was ranked 136 out of 145 countries across the world on the 2015 Global Gender Gap index, an analysis of gender disparity published by the World Economic Forum. Citing this index, the U.S. Agency for International Development noted that in Egypt, “Women have significantly lower participation in the labor force than men (26% vs 79%) and lower literacy (65% literacy for women vs 82% of males).” The agency also cited the 2014 Social Institutions and Gender Index as put out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which classified Egypt “to be among the countries ‘very high’ in gender discrimination together with others in Africa and the Middle East.” Even today, the cultural beliefs, traditions, and religions of Egyptian society give more attentiveness to patriarchy, thereby ensuring the prolongation of male hegemony and female repression. Woman at Point Zero painfully portrays the life of Firdaus, a woman firmly constricted within the boundaries of a brutal, masculine system. The protagonist, who is driven to the streets, rebels against the corrupt system that deliberately confines women in the periphery of society by murdering her pimp.
Confronting Patriarchal Domination
Although partly fictional, Woman at Point Zero is based on a true encounter with a woman awaiting execution in the infamous Qanatir prison in Egypt in 1974. At first, the character Firdaus refuses to speak with anyone, but she eventually tells her tale to El Saadawi. “Let me speak. Do not interrupt me. I have no time to listen to you,” Firdaus begins. She goes on to tell a disturbing story of growing up poor, of being raped by male family members where she “no longer felt the strong sensation of pleasure”, and of experiencing the horror of being genitally mutilated. She tells of being too much of a burden to her family, of being married off as a teenager to a 60-year-old, of being beaten up time and again, of taking to the streets, of becoming a prostitute, and, eventually, of having had enough, murdering a man, a final act leading to her imprisonment in Qanatir. Regardless of her miserable life, Firdaus is proud of herself.
For Firdaus, men of all walks of life eventually turn into a threat. For example, in her early childhood, Firdaus’ father so closely resembles the other men in her village that she finds it difficult to identify him. Just like every other man in the village, her father is a cruel and selfish man who often beats his wife and only cares about securing food for himself. He never fails to go to bed without a fully fed stomach, while Firdaus witnesses the starvation, malnutrition, and eventual death of many of her siblings. Through the eyes of Firdaus, the author cleverly makes references to the power of religion in its role as one of the subjugating pillars of male-dominated societies. Every Friday, her father goes to the mosque to attend the weekly sermon, where the Imam convincingly and eloquently expounds the lesson that “to be obedient was a duty, and to love one’s country too. That love of the ruler and love of Allah were one and indivisible.” Conveniently, the Imam never mentions that “stealing was a sin, and killing was a sin, and defaming the honor of a woman was a sin, and injustice was a sin, and beating another human being was a sin.” Using an innovative writing style, El Saadawi elaborates on the religious hypocrisy prevalent in the traditions and beliefs of patriarchal policies solidifying women’s oppression.
The intensity of the novel relies on the setbacks of destiny to which Firdaus is subjected, the social scrutiny that deceives her, and the cravings of men, which devour her. Pushed to her limits, Firdaus kills the last man standing in the way of her freedom. However, following this single shining moment of self-assertion, she walks to the crossbeams in the act of self-destruction. Just as the title suggests, Firdaus is at her “point zero” as she moves toward being removed from the world. Of her time in prison, she states, “I was the only woman who had torn the mask away, and exposed the face of their ugly reality.” Women — especially women like the protagonist — are neither supposed to have the kind of sovereignty and power Firdaus sought nor are they supposed to fight back when men attempt to put them in their place, like Firdaus’ male pimp tried to accomplish. Society’s retribution causes Firdaus to suffer greatly from the hands of men, which completely dehumanizes her. As one last act of defiance, she welcomes death with open arms as the only viable means of being completely liberated. Firdaus’ entire life is spent under someone else’s power while she tries to ascertain that she is as good as, if not better than, the men in her archetypical world. She has nothing but hatred for these men, and only in death will she be free from them. Firdaus explains, she will die before these powerful men die; she will be a pioneer, no longer afraid of the thing that these powerful, duplicitous men fear most: death. In this way, she will be superior to them. Hence, at the end of the novel, Firdaus’ very refusal to live leaves her as a literal zero, since, in the course of a day, she will cease to exist.
Mutilating the Female Body
Throughout the novel, Firdaus goes through a continuous cycle of oppression inflicted by men. She transitions from the position of daughter to that of wife, to prostitute, to office employee, and, ultimately, a return to prostitution. The protagonist is plagued by a warped moral paradigm that both limits her sexual identity and overlooks domestic violence and sexual abuse. Firdaus recalls the terrifying details about her experience with clitoridectomy, a procedure she forcibly underwent in her early childhood, which the author uses to elaborate on sexual abuse targeting female children. Firdaus’ mother "brought a woman who was carrying a small knife or maybe a razor blade. They cut off a piece of flesh from between [her] thighs.”
Historically, traditional societies have tried to define women regarding physical characteristics, and patriarchal oppression is often vindicated by reference to those characteristics, thus the need for female circumcision. While Egypt is a Muslim country, it is much more progressive than that of other Arab nations, however, dressing modestly, especially for women, is the societal norm. Women aren’t required by law to follow a dress code, but they are looked down upon if they are dressed in anything tightly-fitted or exposing. In addition, there aren’t any shortage of men that continue to stare. Thus, the only benefactors of the painful procedure of female genital mutilation are men. Men view the procedure as a guarantee of premarital virginity and marital fidelity. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) usually enhances a man’s sexual pleasure at the expense of the woman’s. Usually, in Firdaus’ society, when a young girl reaches the age of puberty and the transition from childhood to womanhood, she undergoes the process of FGM, which is “the removal of the external genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons,” as defined by the World Health Organization. In most countries that practice this procedure, a woman’s clitoris and labia are removed to essentially keep women clean and beautiful (as they were believed to be hideous, unfeminine, and unclean features of a woman’s anatomy), to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and pleasure, and to prevent temptation to have extramarital sex.
Before being put through FGM, Firdaus reveals that she was able to feel sexual pleasure when she played “bride and bridegroom” with a boy, named Mohammadain, in the “small shelter made of maize stalks” in the fields. As the protagonist grows into maturity, the primitive circumcision ritual leaves a lasting effect as a result of the remembered feelings, now lost:
“I no longer felt the strong sensation of pleasure that radiated from an unknown and yet familiar part of my body. I closed my eyes and tried to reach the pleasure I had known before but in vain. It was as if I could no longer recall the exact spot from which it used to arise, or as though a part of me, of my being, was gone and would never return.”
Firdaus is restricted by the difficulty of attaining sexual pleasure. In addition to the trauma caused by the cliterodectomy, Firdaus suffers from the memory of rape as male members of her family periodically harass her. Such offenses were committed by male delinquents who never admit them, but they “remain hidden, stored up in the secret recesses of the female child’s self since she dare not tell anyone of what has happened to her”. As a victim of a brutal procedure, Firdaus fails to understand her personal pleasure exceeds male dominance of her body disempowers Firdaus from reclaiming her body from the hands of a tyrannical patriarchal system embedded in an oppressive religious environment. Violence is the only alternative left for Firdaus to regain her lost identity and mutilated sexuality.
Falling Victim to the Masculine Dilemma
At the tender age of eighteen, Firdaus is forcibly married off to a sixty-year-old man, Sheik Mahmoud, by her uncle who plans to use her dowry to pay off his debts. The figurative manipulation of Firdaus’s body happens within the patriarchal family with this financially charged marriage. Firdaus takes to the streets after her husband profusely and brutally beats her with a heavy stick that causes blood to run from her nose and ear. Her literal prostitution occurs when she leaves this patriarchal family for the streets, where she meets Bayoumi. Their relationship begins innocently, with Bayoumi being her knight in shining armor by providing shelter after Firdaus flees from her husband. However, later he proves to be no better than Sheik Mahmoud. Firdaus asks him to either marry her or let her get a job because she could not keep their promiscuous relationship. Bayoumi becomes furious to the point where he locks her up in his flat and sexually assaults her. El Saadawi pushes Firdaus into prostitution under the supervision of the male figure Bayoumi; she uses this instance to express the oppression and exploitation women suffer under the rule of men in Egypt. Despite Firdaus’ experiences thus far, El Saadawi empowers this character, speaking to her project of revealing that women are not utterly helpless. Firdaus’ escape into the streets from Bayoumi’s flat is both figurative and literal. It denotes the break from the prejudice of the male-controlled family toward the unknown that is awaiting Firdaus.
The one shred of happiness that comes from Firdaus’ freedom from both her husband and Bayoumi is stripped when a female pimp named Sharifa takes advantage of her. Firdaus chooses to strike out on her own. With the memory of her father being the first sign of patriarchal hierarchy in her life, this resonates with Firdaus’ economic independence as a means of owning her body. Thus, this time, Firdaus owns her own body. Prostitution gives her financial independence, which, in turn, gives her complete ownership of her body. In this way, Firdaus maintains some degree of freedom, independence, and self-worth. After a sexual encounter with a famous journalist, Mr. Di’aa, during which he humiliates Firdaus and says she is “not respectable”, she decides to give up prostitution. Subsequently, Firdaus gets a job in a company due to the secondary school certificate she earned when she was younger. With the passage of time, she meets Ibrahim, the revolutionary chair of a committee devoted to defending workers’ rights. Firdaus genuinely falls in love with Ibrahim, willingly giving her body to him out of love and adoration, but is heartbroken to discover he is set to marry the daughter of the company owner.
At this moment of disillusionment, Firdaus reaches a profound revelation about her society. She concludes that Egyptian women are oppressed no matter what they do, as she claims, “All women are prostitutes of one kind or another." In other words, all women compensate for their subservient status within the patriarchal class system in different modes. Women essentially “sell their bodies for a price,” giving themselves to husbands for food and a home through marriage; unmarried women advertise themselves sexually to get a promotion or to get a raise at their job. Seeing what a woman is and does in Egypt, Firdaus reckons that she would rather sell sex for money than trade it for food or a promotion, because the former gave her the most liberty and agency. In a culture where women are constantly being taken advantage of at every turn, Firdaus realizes that “a successful prostitute [is] better than a misled saint”. Firdaus uses active prostitution as a way of finding freedom instead of enslaving herself. She says, “A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off.” Firdaus had already endured sexual abuse, forced marriage, betrayal by lovers, and virulent exploitation by pimps. Prostitution on her own terms gave her the freedom she so desperately craved, though that is not to say that Firdaus enjoyed the work. From Firdaus’ perspective, by being a prostitute, a woman is no longer a slave, because she is not under any man. A prostitute without a pimp is simply a freer prostitute, with more liberty than a wife. Firdaus actively disciplines her body, which enables her to control her life and execute absolute power and supremacy over the men she encounters. By being a prostitute, Firdaus is capable of being independent unlike married women. She considers the entire concept of marriage to be a sham, as she sees it to be full of deception. Firdaus believes that men manipulate marriage as a method to use women for insults as a “free” prostitute. Firdaus attempts to destroy this notion by becoming a prostitute, one who uses her body explicitly as a means of getting rid of men’s power over women.
Despite being in the business of prostitution, a profession usually regarded with contempt, Firdaus claims she can readily be publicized in the papers as a “model of a citizen with a sense of civic responsibility,” simply by donating money to a charity. She emphasizes, “whenever I needed a dose of honor or fame, I had only to draw some money from the bank” – a pleasure that an “enslaved wife” would not be entitled to, as women of that category are entirely dependent on their husbands. However, when the protagonist meets the most vicious male character, Marzouk, a manipulative pimp who takes her earnings by force, Firdaus’ alleged freedom is threatened again because of a man. Firdaus soon realizes that even a free prostitute isn’t necessarily as powerful as she had assumed, especially one that is suppressed by a pimp: “I realized I was not nearly as free as I had hitherto imagined myself to be”. Firdaus’ illusion of choice is shattered. Despite her presupposed position of power, her role under Marzouk is the equivalent of a wife in a marriage or a slave in the corrupted society, all because she is a woman. As a woman, she will never attain the freedom she seeks. With this realization, she is driven to drastic measures, namely, the murder of Marzouk.
Challenging the Immoralities of Patriarchy
In Woman at Point Zero, El Saadawi uses Firdaus’ life to illustrate the reality that was the lives of women in Egypt. During the late nineteenth century, women were kept indoors and treated differently than men in Egypt. In respect to religious beliefs, three societal expectations were formulated to control how women acted and were treated in public: Firstly, women were not allowed to gain an education involving information other than taking care of a household. Secondly, women were not to tempt a male to have sinful desires, and would, therefore, be required to wear veils and not speak directly to males other than their husband or family members. Finally, women had no voice in whom they would marry; the choice was always made for them. Egyptian girls were raised in a way that they considered these three rules to be from their god and, thus, could not be questioned. By finding the truth and challenging the strict interpretations of the Qur’an, women discovered they warranted more rights than those they had been offered. This discovery helped in instituting the rise of feminist movements during the twentieth century.
Woman at Point Zero is a narrative of sexual abuse, rape, incest, prostitution, and violence committed against women. The novel is a fiercely harrowing portrait of women in rural Egyptian communities besieged by ignorance, poverty, and violence, which El Saadawi uses to remind readers of the historical discrimination of women that led to their vulnerability in patriarchal societies. Much like Firdaus, El Saadawi grew up in a traditional Egyptian family in a small village just outside of Cairo. Despite the conventional belief that women were not allowed to gain an education, her parents made the unconventional decision to ensure that all of their children received a proper education. Overcoming the colonial and religious oppression of women, El Saadawi excelled in school and moved on to attaining a degree in psychiatry. She began writing about sexuality, politics, religion, and the mistreatment of women, leading her to become a target of actual prejudice. Enraged by her controversial works of literature, the Egyptian government, along with religious establishments, banned her books in Egypt. They also pressured the Ministry of Health to dismiss El Saadawi from her position as editor-in-chief of Health magazine and assistant general secretary of the Medical Association in Egypt. As a result, she became a feminist leading her to confront many of the people within Egyptian society as she continued to fight for women’s rights.
Soon after, El Saadawi began researching neurosis associated with women in prison. She conducted most of the research at Quanatir Prison where she met Firdaus, the woman who inspired her novel. In the following years, El Saadawi was imprisoned by the government of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for criticizing his one-party regime in the same prison where she visited Firdaus. The author’s experiences as political prisoner and activist ignited the anger that drives her criticism of Egyptian society. She investigates how ruling ideologies shape the lives of women and how women react to norms and social institutions. Furthermore, her narrative methods have allowed her to bring the details of the life history of Firdaus into the field of established signs and acceptable discourses. El Saadawi uses Woman at Point Zero to narrate Firdaus’s story, despite being fictionalized, she tells her own story through the lens of a woman who is left with nothing but her truth. This book represents what many women experienced or are still experiencing in Egypt. In giving a voice to Firdaus, the book can be regarded as a response to a tradition of Arab literature that has failed to give women a voice outside of a patriarchal discussion.
With its relentless truth-telling and unyielding defiance of patriarchy, Woman at Point Zero cuts holes in the threads of despair in which it entangles women. Through Firdaus’ internal transformations, recounting her life story while awaiting execution, coupled with the author’s oppressive occurrences, the novel invites readers to experience some of that inspiring freedom that Firdaus desired for herself. Her voice speaks with urgency and strength and is the mark of a desire not to be silenced or defeated, a willingness to impose oneself on an institution of power, from the position of the excluded. Nawal El Saadawi effectively employs her novel as a political tool to liberate women in such a way that inspires them to resist. Woman at Point Zero is not merely a novel, but a message of resistance to all women, pushing them to end oppression and attain freedom for themselves and the rest of society once and for all.
By Noshin Hossain
Illustrations done in collaboration with the New Media Artspace at Baruch College. The New Media Artspace is a teaching exhibition space in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Baruch College, CUNY. Housed in the Newman Library, the New Media Artspace showcases curated experimental media and interdisciplinary artworks by international artists, students, alumni, and faculty. Special thanks to docent Stephanie Jones for creating artwork for this piece.
Check the New Media Artspace out at http://www.newmediartspace.info/