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.