Review: Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi
Title: Woman at Point Zero
Author: Saadawi, Nawal El
Translator: Hetata, Sherif
Length: 114 pages
Genre: Fiction, General, Women
Publisher / Year: Zed Books / 1983
Originally Published: in 1975
Why I Read It: This author is our pick for the Year of Feminist Classics project this month so I am reading other books by her to get more of an understanding of her work.
Date Read: 09/06/11
As I mention above, I am trying to read more by this author to get more of an idea of her work and her views. This was a really great choice to read as it was both incredibly interesting and gave a lot of things to think about. The novel explores issues of corruption, violence against women, and the lack of rights held by women in Egypt, as Saadawi does in God Dies by the Nile, but in this book the focus is more on issues of liberation, opportunity, and women’s sexuality.
The story is narrated by an unnamed psychiatrist who visits a woman, Firdaus, who is set to be executed the following morning. The bulk of the novel is the story of the woman in prison’s story, as told to the psychiatrist. Firdaus tells how:
every single man I did get to know filled me with but one desire: to life my hand and bring it smashing down on his face. (page 10)
And she goes on to tell why that is. It might seem extreme, it might seem like a gross generalization and in some cases it is(though in her case, and you will have to read the book to judge for yourself, it might not be), but that is what the book is here to explain to us. Why Firdaus felt that way and what led her eventually to prison and a death sentence.
Firdaus was the daughter of peasants, but was able to go to secondary school and graduate. Her uncle took advantage of her, making her act as a servant to he and his family. She is then married off to a much older man who treats her poorly, thus starting her down the path of her life where she receives very little help from anyone, especially men. The men that she meets abuse her and take advantage of her in numerous ways, and it takes everything she has to escape from them again and again.
As she learns that there is little opportunity for a woman in a respectable job, she eventually ends up as a prostitute. Her move to this line of work is something that she at times struggled against and at other times embraced. At one point she is told:
A man does not know a woman’s value, Firdaus. She is the one who determines her value. The higher you price yourself, the more he will realize what you are really worth (page 58)
Which if you think about it is a lesson that we all must learn – to truly value ourselves.
When she tries to be respectable and work in government she learns that as a woman she can’t get anywhere without performing favors for male superiors in order to get promotions, raises, benefits, or even simply keep her job. She refuses because she says that she values herself more than that. Through this experience she comes to the view that:
all of us were prostitutes who sold themselves at varying prices, and that an expensive prostitute was better than a cheap one. (page 82)
She talks also about the hypocrisy of many of the men who came to her when she was a prostitute and the things that they would say. Through this she really was able to highlight the double standard that exists in society in general when it comes to sex, but especially when it comes to sex workers. It is almost always the sex worker who gets in trouble, and really that seems a little backwards to me.
The men I hated most of all were those who tried to give me advice, or told me that they wanted to rescue me from the life I was leading. I used to hate them more than the others because they thought they were better than I was and could help me change my life. They saw themselves in some kind of chivalrous role – a role they had failed to play under other circumstances. (page 96)
I especially loved the way in which Saadawi uses repetition to show the ways in which Firdaus was constantly falling into the same traps. The use of repetition also underscores her slowly finding herself and learning to extricate herself from the situations in which she ended up. Although she starts off incredibly naive and trusting, she comes through the book to realize the folly of trust in anyone but herself. Each time certain scenes or words are repeated we get a real and powerful sense of the ways in which the world around her is both conspiring against her and tearing down her ability to trust.
Definitely a really interesting book that I would recommend to all.
In closing, my favorite quote from the book:
‘[...] I prefer to die for a crime I have committed rather than to die for one of the crimes which you have committed.’ (page 111)