Woman at Point Zero

“She is free to do what she wants, and free not to do it.”

Woman at Point Zero

BOOK SUMMARY

The book Woman at Point Zero, by Nawal El Saadawi, takes place in the mid 1970’s and follows the life story of Firadus, a woman on death row in Quanatir, Egypt for killing a man. Through her own recollection to Saadawi, the book’s author and a psychiatrist at the time, Firadus reveals the past events that have led to her prison sentence. As a young girl, Firadus recounts hardships from her early childhood, including growing up in a poor family and undergoing female circumcision. Soon after this bodily mutilation, her parents pass away and she is sent to live with her uncle in Cairo; however, disagreements with her new aunt cause Firdus to be sent away to boarding school. In a scholarly environment away from personal and social drama, Firadus is able to fully immerse herself in education and focus on academic success without the distraction of a romantic interest. After her graduation, the reintroduction of a tumultuous family dynamic causes Firadus to run away from home again. As a punishment for her disobedience, she is forced to marry her old and unattractive step-uncle Sheikh Mahmoud; however, after their marriage results in domestic violence including beatings and constant mistreatment, Firadus runs away a third time. Ending up at a coffee shop, she meets Bayoumi, a seemingly generous man who ends up abusing Firadus even worse than her husband did, so she runs away again.

On her journey, she crosses paths with a prostitute named Sharifa and their friendship soon results in Firdaus working on the streets as a fellow prostitute. After a while working for Sharifa, Firadus overhears Sharifa fighting with Fawzy, a pimp, about who gets to keep her. Terrified, Firadus runs away once again and works independently as a prostitute for until one of her clients inspires her to change her ways. She becomes discouraged by a man who says that she is not a respectable woman due to her position as a prostitute and decides to quit selling herself.

Soon after, she falls in love with a man named Ibrahim, who provides her with renewed hope for a future in the world but tears it down when Firadus discovers his engagement to another woman. Firdaus becomes a prostitute once more but this time she limits her clientele to rich and powerful men, turning several of them down to demonstrate that she has power over them, and in a way, this becomes an outlet for control in a life disguised as her own but previously controlled by others. Firdaus is soon taken over by a pimp and ends up killing him, leading her to receive a death sentence. Firdaus is eventually led to death after revealing her story, leaving the psychiatrist, Nawal Saadawi, to evaluate Firdaus’s journey and her own life through the creation of this book.

AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY

Nawal El Saadawi is a writer, psychiatrist, women’s rights advocate, and political activist. Born in Kafr Tahla, Egypt on October 27, 1931, she began her education at a local school as a young girl and continued her academic studies at Cairo University, Columbia University, and Ayn Shams University (in Cairo).

Nawal’s occupation primarily consisted of working as a doctor at Cairo University and in Egypt’s ministry of health, where she went on to become the director-general of the ministry of health’s education department in 1966. 

Apart from her professional life as a physician, she has accomplished several business and social endeavors with a primary focus on women’s rights, including founding the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) in 1982 and becoming the group’s publication editor and founding Health magazine in 1968. In an attempt to share her political and social values, she ran for the Egyptian presidential election in 2004 on a platform supporting women’s and human rights, liberation for women from social oppression and harmful medical practices commonly executed in Egypt, freedom from various injustices, and democracy.

However, as a prominent Egyptian feminist and a woman herself, Nawal has faced several challenges to her progressive ideas over the years by those supporting traditional Egyptian standards for women. To begin with, Health magazine was forced to end publication by Egyptian authorities due to its “inappropriate” contents describing women’s health topics that were not socially acceptable by traditional Egyptian standards for women, and Nawal was additionally fired from her position as director-general of the ministry of health due to her controversially received book Women and Sex (1969). In later years, Nawal’s founded group AWSA was shut down and she additionally faced further obstacles when she was placed in prison for her outspoken and radical beliefs advocating for women’s rights and health during 1981.

As a writer, Nawal has published a myriad of books, including but not limited to Woman at Point Zero, The Hidden Face of Eve, God Dies By The Nile, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, Zeina, and Memoirs From The Women’s Prison. Today, she is still an outspoken advocate for social injustice and women’s rights as well as continuing to be a prolific writer.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Women as a group have experienced various forms of persecution and discrimination over time due to being part of the female sex; Woman at Point Zero surrounds a particularly difficult period for women – Egypt in the 1970’s. During this period, the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) still frequently occurred in Egyptian society. This surgical procedure is performed by removing the clitoris, a source of sexual pleasure for women, in order to decrease female sexuality and further reduce women to objects with the sole purpose of existing for male pleasure and reproduction. FGM is overarchingly criticized by first world countries as barbaric and inhumane, but the practice is still prevalent in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and other countries with a male-dominated society. Nawal detailed the effects of this process throughout the book Woman at Point Zero, as the main character Firadus was a victim of genital mutilation and much of the book detailed the sexual aspect of Firadus’s life dealing with mutilated genitals. Egypt was a patriarchal society, which Nawal fought against during her life. There were many feminist groups that arose during this time, such as the Egyptian Feminist Union and the Muslim Women’s Society, but unfortunately, few women’s rights groups prevailed through the power of a heavily misogynistic society. The Egyptian Feminist Union was ultimately dismantled by the state and the leader of the Muslim Women’s Society was sent to prison; nevertheless, these groups managed to push for much-needed change while they were active. 

During the 70’s, Anwar Sadat came to power in Egypt and caused major changes for women by creating a constitution that only allowed gender equality if it did not undermine Shari’ah law. He later reversed his stance on gender equality, in large part to please the West and attempt to better international relations. Despite Sadat’s relatively progressive attitude toward women’s rights, Nawal’s works, which contained much about female sexuality, were censored and she was jailed in the early 80’s. Nawal’s primary book Women and Sex confronts this issue head-on, detailing the story of a woman who reclaimed her sexuality despite a history of sexual violence. The main character challenged the status quo and liberated herself from her oppressors, even though her independence and strength resulted in her death.

CONNECTIONS TO OTHER TEXTS

Woman at Point Zero, by Nawal Saadawi, is an interesting book to assess in relation to other authors, texts, and related ideas due to its originally limited social reception from its controversial subject matter amidst social standards and political tensions in the Middle East at the time of this book’s publication. In recent years, however, Woman at Point Zero has gained attention by feminist forces seeking to reveal the hardships experienced by women in other countries and cultures seemingly different from those in more progressive communities.

In an alternative medium to a text but still related, Nawal Saadawi has been compared to the contemporary author of a play written after her book Woman at Point Zero. This play, also titled Woman at Point Zero, provides a contemporary adaptation of the original work that compares themes in the book present during 1970’s Egypt to similar themes occurring currently in contemporary society towards women. 

 

Photo from the play adaptation of the book “Woman at Point Zero.”

 

In connection with other texts, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been compared to Woman at Point Zero due to both novels’ themes of female oppression. The Handmaid’s Tale describes a dystopian society “where barren wealthy women keep handmaidens as slaves to conceive children in a ritual of sex with their husbands that essentially amounts to rape” (Awad). In Woman at Point Zero, Firdaus lives in a society where women are socially oppressed, but physically mutilated and abused. The only difference between the two is that The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of pure fiction and Woman at Point Zero is based on reality. El Saadawi’s books have followed a common theme: female oppression. Her book The Hidden Face of Eve also detailed female oppression in a similar way that Woman at Point Zero had, as it told the story of El Saadawi’s story of her own circumcision.

As El Saadawi is an active feminist, many of her books told the heart-wrenching story of female oppression, having the readers search inside ourselves and ignite a passion to fight for women’s rights, seeing how inhuman the treatment of women in Egypt was at the time. Similar to The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir – theme: feminism, women as powerful underdogs; content: women’s struggle in a highly misogynistic world, explores women’s social roles through the 20th century and how they change over time and by location – Beauvoir asks “What is woman?”[7] She argues that man is considered the default, while woman is considered the “Other”: “Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not herself but as relative to him.”  two factors explain the evolution of women’s condition: participation in production and freedom from reproductive slavery. She also describes prostitution and the changes in dynamics brought about by courtly love that occurred about the twelfth century. In comparison to Beauvoir’s work, Woman at Point Zero states that “all women are prostitutes of one kind or another,” conveying a strong underlying relation to the description of prostitution and theme of using women (i.e. similar to prostitutes) in The Second Sex.

BOOK REVIEWS

The book did not have many reviews from the time it was written, as many books of the time were banned in Egypt, including this one. The book also was received poorly, especially by the government. The ban affected how popular the book was so there were not many reviews and what was documented at the time was that her reception of the book was negative. The reception at the time speaks volumes about how the society was. The society of Egypt in the 1970s seemed very anti-woman, as the government attempted to disband the feminist organizations and society held women in very low regard. El Saadawi had butted heads with the government on several of her books, and she was even jailed for her works.

 

Hansen, Romy. “Book Club: Woman at Point Zero.” Shout Out UK, Shout Out UK, 23 Jan. 2018.

This review is positive, saying that the book is very impactful and just as relevant when it was written as it is today. The author of this review speaks highly of the book and includes 3 quotes which they found important throughout the book and expanded upon them, expressing her view of the book and what it’s deeper meaning was. Her take on this book was that “Firdaus is a symbol of the oppressed, and she used her quotes to expand on the darkness that this book truly expressed and how deeply it can impact the reader.


Housham, Jane. “Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi Review – Classic Feminist Novel.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Nov. 2015. 

This review was rather short and included a good amount of summary. But the review did manage to express a positive view of the book, stating: “The text has a high visual quality, it’s an expressionist film in words”. The review also managed to state its overall opinion of the book: “As a first-person account, the book initially seems narrow in focus, but it builds to an all-encompassing and blood-curdling indictment of patriarchal society”.


Middleton, Scott. “Reading Rumpus Book Reviews.” Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El-Saadawi, Blogspot, 2 Oct. 2017.

This review also praised the book while providing some historical context as well. There was a decent amount of summary with this review but its historical context was relevant, as it detailed the reign of Anwar Sadat in the 1970’s and his imprisonment of intellectuals and critics alike. This reviewer’s take on the novel is that “The book shows a woman exploited by men but because the men refuse to see the truth of a flawed system and gender relationship, they must silence the woman by killing her in the end”.

Girnyte, Karina. “Woman At Point Zero Review – Karina Girnyte – Medium.” Medium, Medium, 23 Oct. 2015.

In this review, the author described the main character Firdaus as a “tragic hero” and praises the book for its detailed writing that makes its readers feel deeply for the main character. The reviewer states that this is an emotional book, stating: “It will give you nightmares, and if you are truly passionate about women rights it will make you mad”. This reviewer also cited other reviews to help prove her opinion, using the New York Times as one of the reviews.

THEME TAGS

Women’s rights, respect, truth, hardship, struggle, overcoming circumstances, the power of choice, standing up to authority.

WORKS CITED

Banham, Peter. “Woman at Point Zero – June, 2016.” A Little View of the World, 16 June 2016, www.alittleviewoftheworld.co.uk/woman-point-zero-june-2016/.

“Biography of Nawal EL SAADAWI.” African Success : Biography of Nawal EL SAADAWI, African Success, www.africansuccess.org/visuFiche.php?id=508&lang=en.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Anwar Sadat.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 19 Feb. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Anwar-Sadat.

Claire. “Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) Tr.Sherif Hetata #WITMonth.”WordPress, 22 Aug. 2016, clairemca.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/woman-at-point-zero-by-nawal-el-saadawi-egypt-tr-sherif-hetata-witmonth/.

Girnyte, Karina. “Woman At Point Zero Review – Karina Girnyte – Medium.” Medium, Medium, 23 Oct. 2015.

Hansen, Romy. “Book Club: Woman at Point Zero.” Shout Out UK, Shout Out UK, 23 Jan. 2018.

Housham, Jane. “Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi Review – Classic Feminist Novel.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Nov. 2015. 

McBride, Jennifer. “Nawal Saadawi.” Faculty Webster, faculty.webster.edu/woolflm/saadawi.html.

Mekerta, Soraya. “ Introducing Nawal El Saadawi, A Bio-Bibliography.” Taylor and Francis Online, Journal of the African Literature Association, 2016, www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080%2F21674736.2006.11690025. 

Middleton, Scott. “Reading Rumpus Book Reviews.” Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El-Saadawi, Blogspot, 2 Oct. 2017.

Raghavan, Sudarsan. “Female Genital Mutilation Needed Because Egyptian Men Are ‘Sexually Weak,’ Lawmaker Says.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Sept. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/09/06/egypt-lawmaker-female-genital-mutilation-needed-because-men-are-sexually-weak/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3620a5462a71.

Sibookdragon. “Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, Translated by Sherif Hatata.”BookDragon, 19 May 2014, smithsonianapa.org/bookdragon/woman-at-point-zero-by-nawal-el-saadawi-translated-by-sherif-hatata/.

“The ‘Epidemic’ of Sexual Harassment-and Rape-in Morsi’s Egypt.” Frontpage Mag, 23 June 2015, www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/177672/epidemic-sexual-harassment%E2%80%94and-rape%E2%80%94-morsis-egypt-raymond-ibrahim.

“Woman at Point Zero & Four Arab Composers.” Shubbak Festival – London’s Biennial Festival of Contemporary Arab Culture, 2 Aug. 2017, www.shubbak.co.uk/woman-point-zero/.

“Woman at Point Zero: El Saadawi N. Reflection.” Woman at Point Zero: El Saadawi N. Reflection, 10 Feb. 2016.