“Woman at Point Zero” by Nawal El Saadawi
“Woman at Point Zero” is a book about Nawal El Saadawi’s experiences as a psychiatrist in Egypt. She used to conduct a study on the psychological effects of prison on female prisoners but she did not know that she will also be imprisoned herself. During one of her visits to Qanatir prison, she meets a doctor who tells her about a distinct prisoner. This prisoner happens to be a woman who was sentenced to death after killing a man. The woman also refused to sign the request for pardon. Nawal became very interested in meeting this woman, named Firdaus, but she insists on avoiding a conversation with her. Finally, the day before she is to be put to death, Firdaus agrees to meet with Nawal.
The plot unfolds as Firdaus narrates the story of her life. She tells Nawal all her trials and tribulations. When she was a child, her mother performed clitoridectomy on her. Since then, she no longer feels sexual pleasure the same way. When her parents died, she was sent to live with her uncle who lives in Cairo. She was later sent to boarding school because her uncle’s wife did not like her. Firdaus worked hard at school and she even got an award. After graduation, her uncle and his wife married her to Sheikh Mahmoud. Sheikh is already 60 years old and has a facial deformity. This man always beats Firdaus. After one terrible beating, she finally decided to run away. She meets a man named Bayoumi. He used to be kind to her until she told him that she wants to have a job. Bayoumi was enraged and began to lock her in the apartment. She was able to escape with the help of a friend. While resting by the Nile, she meets a woman who taught her to become a first-class prostitute. When one of her customers told her that her job is not respectable, she left prostitution and began to work in an office. She met a man named Ibrahim and she fell in love with him. Firdaus was starting to find that the world is not as awful as it seems until she found out that he was engaged to the boss’s daughter. After the heartbreaking revelation, she decided to return to prostitution. She met a pimp who tried to control her life for quite sometime. She killed the pimp during a fight. Short after that, she slept with a prince, stole his money and slapped him. She was arrested and sentenced to death after the incident.
The context of the book is grounded on feminism. The book informs about the condition of women in a patriarchal society. Specifically, it is a depiction of how women are treated in Egyptian society. It is quite evident that the author herself is an advocate of women’s rights. At the end of the book, the fictional Nawal is consumed with helpless rage over the condition of women, including herself, in her country.
Point Zero could pertain to a situation wherein a person becomes free from someone else’s control. It is a situation wherein one breaks away from exploitation and oppression. It is an escape from the limitations imposed by social status. Being locked up in a prison cell might seem as the worst place to be but for Firdaus, it is freedom at its fullest. The book was written as a protest to the way women are treated in Egypt. The author illustrated that even the empowered doctor and her modern science could do nothing to cure the pains of Firdaus. This could be seen as an alarming statement as long as the women of the Arab world are concerned. In fact, there are also women all over the world that experience exploitation and oppression. In some societies, women are not treated as equal with men. The worst part of it that women are sometimes perceived as mere sex objects.
Firdaus never had to make any choices of her own. In her childhood, her clitoris was removed. Then she was forced to marry to an old man that never cared about what she thinks. There was a part in the book where Bayoumi asked her whether she prefers oranges or tangerines. She was quite surprised because nobody has ever asked her to make such decisions.
Firdaus was bothered by the fact that only men have power. Based on her observations of the relationships around her, she came to the conclusion the men have power over women. All the men in her life had power over her: from her uncle, to her husband, to the stranger that passes by have power over her. It wasn’t until she met Sharifa that she was able to learn to gain power from the desires of men. Firdaus used prostitution to gain more money and power. However, the pimp who wanted to take control of her life made her believe that no matter how powerful she might seem — men will always try to control her. Men will never see her differently because she is only a woman. In the society she lived in, women cannot make real choices. She was sentenced to death for killing a man. It was an act of self-determination. It was an act of defiance to the existing condition of women in her society.
Firdaus reached point zero at the prison. It is quite ironic because some would perceive that being in a prison cell is the worst place to be in. A prison cell should make someone feel suffocated and constrained. This is not the case for her. She feels that being in the prison cell is the most liberating moment of her life. She even feels more liberated than anyone while locked up in the prison cell. She believes that in the world that she lives in; women will never have real choices, power, and freedom. For Firdaus, death is the only way to escape this. The prison cell is a symbol of how society thinks it can control and contain Firdaus. Nawal believes that it is ridiculous because neither prison nor death has power over Firdaus. She finally has control over her life.
Is point zero a desirable ‘space’ to occupy?
If the women with the same experience as Firdaus would be asked, they would probably say yes. The degree of suffering that women experience from these types of culture and society is too much. For these women, it is a lifelong struggle for respect and freedom. They have to go through gender discrimination, exploitation, and oppression. Firdaus is an image of determination and courage. She did her best to find the respect and freedom that she desired, although she ended up believing that society’s view and treatment of women will never change. In her prison cell, she is free from the harsh world that she lives in. She was brave to face death because it is the only way to escape. Death is an opportunity to start over.
Nawal wrote the following lines pertaining to Firdaus: “But this was no dream. This was not air flowing into my ears. The woman sitting on the ground in front of me was a real woman, and the voice filling my ears with its sound, echoing in a cell where the window and door were tightly shut, could only be her voice, the voice of Firdaus” (El-Saadawi 7). Nawal describes Firdaus as a real woman. She is a symbol of truth; a living proof of the faults and shortcomings of society.
Towards the end of the book, Firdaus tells Nawal that the men that sentenced her to death wanted her to die because they are afraid that she will tell the truth. Before her death, she said: “I spit with ease on their lying faces and words, on their lying newspapers.” (El Sadaawi 103). Nawal felt ashamed as she left the cell. She could not believe that she tolerated this kind of oppression. She was upset that she conformed to the ways of society. She ended the novel with following words: “And at that moment I realized that Firdaus had more courage than I.” (El Sadaawi 108).
El Saadawi, Nawal. Woman at Point Zero. Egypt: Zed Books, 1975.