Woman At Point Zero by Nawal El Sa’dawi

For Nawal El Sa’dawi feminism is deeply politicised, the ideals of her resistance in line with the Western feminist movement. El Sa’dawi’s Woman at Point Zero is both a piece of fiction and nonfiction, as El Sa’dawi’s character, Firdaus, is very much based on a real person El Sa’dawi met in Egypt. The novel tells the story of Firdaus, an imprisoned prostitute awaiting her death sentence. The plot follows the story of Firdaus from her childhood in rural Egypt, when she experiences female circumcision and sexual harassment by her uncle, to the time she ends up in prison. Firdaus experiences homelessness and poverty, as well as sexual assault and exploitation during her life. There is a point, however, where she breaks free of her pimp and starts a prosperous life as an independent prostitute.

What is so interesting to me about this novel is that it successfully combines witness and empowerment. There is a successful balance, which I think is especially necessary when writing about the Middle East, between exposing violence against women, but also allowing these women to escape the stereotype of the victimised Arab woman. El Sa’dawi allows Firdaus’ character to resist her circumstances both intellectually and actively. The growth that the reader perceives in Firdaus’ character allows it to move between the spaces of oppression and empowerment, thus leaving the borders of a stereotype to become an example of resistance.

Firdaus’ sexual awakening occurs during childhood, when a young friend and her old uncle fondle her. This awakening is complicated by her circumcision, which leaves her awareness of her sexuality ambiguous. The ‘figurative’ exploitation of Firdaus’ body occurs within the patriarchal family, when her uncle marries her off to an old rich man in order to get her dowry. Her ‘literal’ prostitution is linked to her leaving this patriarchal family into the streets where she meets Bayoumi who he locks her up in his flat. The fact that El Sa’dawi chooses to push this character into prostitution under the supervision of a male figure speaks to the oppression and exploitation women suffer under the rule of men in the Middle East. The fact that El Sa’dawi chooses to empower this character, however, speaks to her project of showing that women are not totally helpless.

The first act of resistance in the narrative takes shape in Firdaus’ escape into the streets. This escape, both figurative and literal, signifies the escape from the injustice of the patriarchal family towards the unknown. Even the language that El Sa’dawi uses to describe these streets is more lyrical:

It was clean, paved thoroughfare, which ran along one bank of the Nile with tall trees on either side. The houses were surrounded by fences and gardens. The air which entered my lungs was pure and free of dust. I saw a stone bench facing the river. I sat down on it, and lifted my face to the refreshing breeze. (El Sa’dawi 54)

 

Firdaus’ independence commences with her realisation that money and the objectification and exploitation of a woman’s body co-exist. Her revelation that this knowledge is not new, but suppressed in the memory of her father, which stands for patriarchal hierarchy, resonates with women’s financial independence as a means of owning their bodies. It might seem ironic that prostitution can give her financial independence, but that financial independence might also give her full ownership of her body. This reverse objectification is not limited to the context of prostitution, but goes beyond it to speak to the independence of all women.

Furthermore, objectification of the female body within the context of prostitution is challenged by a self-objectification that Firdaus’ character exercises, not to mention an objectification of the male body. For Firdaus’ independence is accompanied by allowing herself the luxury of choosing the men she would sleep with. Her understanding of the male gaze towards the female develops her resistance towards that objectification, as she controls it with her own gaze towards herself, her gaze towards men, and her control over her body’s sensory involvement during sex. Her understanding of the transgression over her body allows her to set limits, as well as identify her selfhood and identity:

How many were the years of my life that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from these people who held me in their grasp since the very first day? (El Sa’dawi 74)

Therefore, it is through this separation of body and self that Firdaus can claim both elements as her own and defy the will of others to wipe her identity and reduce her to an object. This realisation, this self-awareness and exercise of control that develops in Firdaus’ character is one of the ways in which she resists the situation she is in and the gender role society imposes on her.

This book was one of the first feminist novels I have read in Jordan. I admire it so much not only for exposing the horrible truth that many women in the Middle East still live in, but for allowing women the strength to resist and reclaim their bodies and their authorities over themselves.

 

Salam,

Siwar

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8 thoughts on “Woman At Point Zero by Nawal El Sa’dawi”

  1. Thanks for this review, Siwar–it’s very interesting. I was wondering while reading it how you felt about the end–the fact that Firdaus does not resist her death sentence. This act is represented, I think, as independent and resistant, and yet in the end it still results in her death. The same for the control over who she sleeps with as a prostitute–she does have some more control, but in the end she is still forced to prostitute herself as the very “best” option for herself.

    I like to think that El Sa’dawi is using these ironies to make a barbed point that it’s really wrong that these acts of resistance, which are so tiny and still constrained within a prison of objectification, are as much resistance as is available to Firdaus.

    But then I wonder what a militant second-waver would have to say about that…I don’t know, what do you think?

    Reply
  2. Thanks for your insightful comment, Alyse. I think what you said is an excellent way of explaining the “futility” of that resistance at the end. I would like to think, however, that even though El Sa’dawi’s project focuses on a combination of witness and resistance, her primary concern is the exposure of the oppression and exploitation of the female body in the patriarchal societies of North Africa and the Middle East. In light of the region’s conservative sexual politics, especially in 1975 when Woman at Point Zero was published, the mere representation of a prostitute as resistant and independent is an immense act of resistance by itself. Speaking up about female circumcision, sexual exploitation especially by a “religious man”, and prostitution were all along the lines of taboo. The fact that Firduas’ resistance is fundamentally undermined throughout, as well as in the end, speaks, I think, to the reality of the situation, rather than the failure of this resistance. I think you have inspired me to write another post about this novel! 🙂

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  3. Woman at Point Zero for me is one of the best feminism novel i have ever read, but then i still think the novet ends at a very weak note. Why?

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  4. I personally interpreted the ending not as weak or futile but as strength
    Firdaus has chosen to end her own life and in doing so she holds complete, undeniable power for the first time (something she desires throughout the book). This is seen in so many of those beautiful quotes in the final passage of her identifying what it is that allows her society to enslave her and then letting go of that
    I believe it is an enormous display of strength and power and perfectly surmises what El Saadawi is attempting to discuss throughout the book

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  5. An insightful book to an extent of extremity as to such oppression being fathomed by women.This book was very inspiring and motivating.

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  6. is book is very inspiring and intriguing. it ended well because she died a free woman. this alone should strengthen women to go on in life and take control of their lives. its awesome!!!

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  7. How interesting and envying it is to go through this piece of work! How wonderful the novelist has succeeded in putting/using down the narrative techniques! WHAT A FEMINIST! OH I can’t just resist keeping reading the book as always as possible…………………………what a third generation writer!
    keep it up.

    Reply

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