Woman at Point Zero // Nawal el Saadawi
Nawal el Saadawi is a formidable woman to read about. In the 1950’s she graduated as a medical doctor, challenging the patriarchal and sexist society that characterised the Middle East throughout the last two centuries. From there she became a vocal critic of the repression of women’s rights in Egypt and in Islam generally. She criticised FGM (female genital mutilation), attacked the ‘tool of oppression’ that is the veil and questioned religion’s inability to evolve and even hear critiques. She was imprisoned for these views and she became a figure of subversion or liberation, depending on your political background.
Unlike many figures, such as Simone de Beauvoir or Gloria Steinem, Saadawi’s works were lost to many mainstream readers for too many years. However, her involvement in the Arab Spring and the protests in Tahrir Square have led to a resurrection of her ideas and her writings beyond the Middle East. As a result, both The Hidden Face of Eve and Woman at Point Zero found their way to bookshop shelves as part of the new wave of feminist writings.
Although The Hidden Face of Eve is a fascinating, visceral and shocking exploration of the violence, repression and subjugation of women in Egyptian society, it is the subtlety of Saadawi’s character study in her novel, Woman at Point Zero, that is often more compelling.
In the book we follow the character of Firdaus, a woman on death row in a Cairo prison, facing her last night on Earth before the authorities carry out their judgement on her. She does not speak to anyone or interact with anyone, but when a psychiatrist arrives to interview her, she eventually starts to talk and she tells the story that led her to this cell.
On the face of it the story is a simple one. She suffered an impoverished and neglected childhood in which she saw no life beyond the agriculture and housework that defined the lives of her mother and father. This was her lot in life. But education provided a way out. She believed education would be a way to transcend the limitations imposed on her by society. Throughout the novel you get the sense that education is a beacon for both Saadawi and Firdaus. Through education a woman can achieve more than a patriarchal society dictates she can. However, Firdaus is a woman betrayed. Betrayed by her family, betrayed by her lovers and betrayed by every man she encounters, there is a hollowness to her life that education was not able to overcome.
Instead of being able to dictate her own life she was passed from her family to an old husband and from her husband to the street. From there, with no protection and no means by which to protect herself, prostitution becomes the only way she can have control over her own life. When a woman has no money, is discriminated against and cannot find work, her sexuality and her own body are the only commodity she has to trade. In these moments Firdaus justifies this way of living by arguing that she has control over her life and career, but as we discover this is a fallacy. Like the rest of her life her façade of control is ripped down by a man, who wants to control her.
In the end this forces Firdaus to take drastic action and it leads her to prison. Rooted in the life of a real patient Saadawi encountered during her research, Woman at Point Zero is tragic to read. I read every encounter knowing that the story would lead to Firdaus’ incarceration but hoping that each scene would be the moment she would become free and left to build the world around her in the way she wants. It never is. She is doomed to be subjected to the whims and controls of the men and women in her life. She is only free with her final act, when people fear here and leave her alone.
The novel is honest, it’s real, it’s brutal and one can’t shy away from the reality of life for the Egyptian female. In this it is a total triumph. In 160 pages you sympathise with Firdaus, cry with her and you are shocked by every move that takes you further down her tragic story. Despite its sparse prose it has a huge reach and is undoubtedly one of the defining pieces of feminist works to emerge out of the last century.
RRP: £9.99 // Zed Books Ltd. // 2015