Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El-Saadawi

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Woman at Point Zero
Now I had learnt that honour requires large sums of money to protect it, but that large sums of money could not be obtained without losing one's honour.

Firdaus was sentenced to death for killing a man, and although several people have offered to apply for a pardon or some kind of mitigation of her sentence, she has staunchly refused any such interference. Our narrator is curious about this prisoner and wants to meet her, but Firdaus is firm - she doesn't want any visitors. However, on the night before she is to be executed, she changes her mind and decides to talk to the narrator. What follows is her story from her birth to the present, and all the ways she has been mistreated and taken advantage of.

Firdaus' story is not pleasant. Her father only wanted sons and didn't care for this girl who outlived all or most of her siblings. Her earliest memories of her mother show a woman who may have cared for her, but very soon she was replaced by someone (either a crueler version of herself or a stepmother) who didn't care much for her at all. She was circumcised by her mother, molested by her uncle, and made to starve most days - all before she was able to leave home. Her uncle put her in a school - the singular positive event in her life. But after school, there was still no future for her. She was married off to a 60-some year old widower, who didn't like her to eat much, if at all anything. After she ran away from his home, she was taken in by another man, who raped her almost every night.

The rest of the book is a litany of such events. Every time she trusts someone, that person backstabs her. It could be the woman who empowered her by making her a prostitute or it could be the man who professed his love even as he was getting engaged to another woman. Over time, Firdaus began to hate all men.

At face value, this story wasn't winning any empathy from me. Even though there are people out there who suffer tragedy after tragedy, making them very bitter for the rest of their lives, Firdaus' story seemed to me more manipulative than empathetic. But it isn't until the ending that I began to realize that there is a clear political message in this book. Nawal El-Saadawi does not share Firdaus' story with us to get us to be more interested in women welfare or to be more aware of violence against women. Instead, when Firdaus insists that she would rather be a prostitute than a wife or a career woman, she is saying that only prostitutes have any kind of power over men, even though men created the profession of prostituting for their entertainment. The wife has to bow down to the husband's desires while the career woman has to obey their male bosses' demands. But as a prostitute, she can demand her price, even if the man is the King of some country or a Minister.

This is a hard book to appreciate without having some context. Although it seems manipulative that Firdaus seems to go from one tragedy to the next, the truth is that in many countries, women are not even considered citizens. Even in the US, where women are freer than those in some other countries, they are still not often taken seriously. They are viewed as sexual objects, not trusted enough in boardrooms, and laughed at when rape statistics are quoted. In Firdaus' time and country (Egypt), they are whores who don't deserve a voice. The bigger context is that this book is not fiction. The author actually met Firdaus in prison when she was doing some research. (Ironically, the author herself gets arrested a few years later for her political views.)

The prose in Woman at Point Zero is cold throughout. Firdaus herself narrates her story and she is at a point where she does not care about anything, so there is not much emotion lacing her story. This makes for a very detached prose and although I enjoyed the first half of the book, I couldn't quite bring myself to like the second half. This makes it easy to not like this book, despite appreciating that Firdaus' story was tragic. The more I thought about this book, the less I believe that it was about Firdaus, despite being nonfiction. Instead, it was more about women oppression at its extreme. It is a story of how much a woman can cry foul and still not be taken seriously, but how one man can frown and get a woman sentenced to death.

At only a little over a 100 pages, Woman at Point Zero makes for a rather quick read, despite its contents. Were it fiction, it probably may not stay with me. It has a very fable-like feel about it - you see the cruelties of the society by the end but it's not a forceful enough story to make you ruminate the problems. A lot of it is symbolic and it can be appreciated only when you read it with companion books. I did end up feeling that I don't know enough about Egypt. Egypt was a country I loved learning about in my Geography class, especially when reading about the majestic Nile river. However, my history textbook was mostly silent about it, bundling it with the rest of Africa in one quick short lesson.

I read this book for the #diversiverse event. Check out the link for more reviews of diverse books.

This book is from my personal library.

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