Gender oppression and survival strategies in ‘Woman at Point Zero’ by Nawal El Saadawi

Woman at Point Zero is an Arabian novel written by psychiatrist and feminist, Nawal El Saadawi. In her novel, she interviews a woman who is jailed for the murder of a man, that man being her pimp. Firdaus, the protagonist, is a prostitute, and the novel tells the story of how she came to be a sex worker and murderer. Saadawi documents her interviews with Firdaus before Firdaus is executed. Firdaus’s story reveals the dark side of being a woman in patriarchal Egypt. Within Firdaus’s story, she talks about a few women who impacted her life: her mother, her uncle’s wife, and her friend Sharifa who is also a prostitute. El Saadawi, the author, is also a character in the book, as the psychiatrist interviewing Firdaus. Therefore, in this narrative, the reader encounters five different women who live in a patriarchal society. Each of these women deal with their position in society in a different way. This essay will explore the different coping strategies, and survival methods used by each woman, along with their attitude and actions towards patriarchy, gender oppression, and gender-based violence. I will begin with an examination of Firdaus and then proceed to an analysis of the other female characters (as viewed through El Saadawi’s understanding of Firdaus’ perspective). 

Firdaus experiences many different forms of abuse in her childhood, most of these being perpetrated by men. She is physically beaten and emotionally neglected by her parents. Firdaus’s father is a violent and selfish man. He schemes and manipulates in his job as a farm worker. He is also a hypocrite who pretends to be religiously devout while abusing his family. He prioritises his well-being over his wife and children’s well-being. When food is limited in the house, he eats a full meal while his wife and children starve. When his female children die, he does not care and continues life as normal, unaffected. But when his male children die, he beats his wife for it.  As a product of his society, he is a male chauvinist. In Firdaus’s words, she describes her father as: 

My father, a poor peasant farmer, who could neither read nor write, knew very few things in life. How to grow crops, how to sell a buffalo poisoned by his enemy before it died, how to exchange his virgin daughter for a dowry when there was still time, how to be quicker than his neighbour in stealing from the fields once the crop was ripe. How to bend over the headman’s hand and pretend to kiss it, how to beat his wife and make her bite the dust each night (El Saadawi 1975:20).

Firdaus’ mother caters to her father’s demands, and serves him like a king – even washing his feet for him. She does not protect Firdaus from her father’s abuse, and arranges a cliterectomy for Firdaus. Further to the abuse from her parents, Firdaus is sexually abused by her uncle. Firdaus’ parents are not even aware that Firdaus is being molested. As a result of these childhood traumas, Firdaus grows up with hate and contempt for men. 

She feels powerless in a society driven by men’s endless need for power, money and sex (El Saadawi 1975:33). Firdaus tells the psychiatrist that she spits on random men’s faces in newspapers (El Saadawi 1975:98). Firdaus’ opinion of men is summarised when she says: 

I discovered that all these rulers were men. What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power. They were men who sowed corruption on the earth, and plundered their peoples, men endowed with loud voices, a capacity for persuasion, for choosing sweet words and shooting poisoned arrows. Thus, the truth about them was revealed only after their deaths, and as a result I discovered that history tended to repeat itself with a foolish obstinacy (El Saadawi 1975:33).

The cliterectomy robs Firdaus of her sexuality (Gohar 2016:178). Female circumcision is a traditional practice in some rural Arab and African cultures, and is medically known in the West as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  The purpose of this ritual is to rid females of their sexual desires. In losing their sexuality, women are made vulnerable. The patriarchy supports, if not plans and enables, these practices because they want women to lose their sexual desires. The men in these cultures believe that women will be faithful to them in marriage if they lack sexual desires for other men. This is a violent and psychologically damaging system that is used to control and subjugate women. 

The patriarchy also subjugates women by viewing them as objects and commodities (Gohar 2016:184). Fathers sell their daughters for a dowry, and pimps sell their prostitutes for a profit. Firdaus experiences both of these in her life. She is only nineteen years old when her uncle (under the influence of his wife) gets rid of Firdaus by marrying her off to a man who is over sixty years old. It is interesting to note, in the case of Firdaus’s arranged marriage, that it is her aunt’s idea, and not her uncle’s. Firdaus’s aunt feels threatened by Firdaus’s close relationship with her uncle; she also feels that Firdaus is a financial burden on their family. Firdaus’s aunt deliberately strokes her husband’s ego by flattering him about his status and wealth, in order to convince him to marry Firdaus off to Sheikh Mahmoud: 

‘I can swear by Allah, your holiness, that the Lord must really love this niece of yours, for she will be really fortunate if Sheikh Mahmoud agrees to marry her.’

‘Do you think he will?’

‘And why should he refuse indeed? Through this marriage he will become related to a respected Sheikh and man of religion. Is that not itself reason enough for him to welcome such a proposal?’

‘Maybe he’s thinking of taking a woman from a wealthy family. You know how he worships the piastre.’

‘And does your holiness consider himself a poor man. We are better off than a lot of people. Thanks be to Allah for everything.’ (El Saadawi 1975:42) 

By pushing her husband to marry Firdaus off, she is partaking in the patriarchal practices which objectify and commodify women. This is a case of woman-on-woman abuse within a patriarchy, where women have to think selfishly about their own well-being, before thinking about another woman’s well-being. In this system, women cannot form a sisterhood to protect and support each other. Women compete with each other, and this leads to women being oppressed or harmed by other women. This dynamic repeats in Firdaus’s life, when her friend Sharifa deceives her.  

Sharifa manipulates Firdaus into becoming her employee. She sees potential in Firdaus to be a high end prostitute who earns lots of money from top ranking businessmen and politicians. Sharifa initially befriends Firdaus, and later uses her to start a lucrative business (brothel) for herself. Sharifa is an aging prostitute who will soon run out of clients. She cunningly tricks the vulnerable Firdaus into working for her.  Sharifa is ultimately looking out for her own best interest, and has no concern for Firdaus (Sharifa is playing the role of a madam). Sharifa, being a prostitute herself, understands the risks and misery that comes from being a sex worker, yet she does not hesitate to bring Firdaus into her dark world. In her desperation to maintain her livelihood, she is willing to lead a young girl down the dangerous and painful path of sex work. Sharifa shows a lack of empathy, and she takes advantage of Firdaus’ vulnerability and youth. It would seem that Sharifa has become unconscionable after years of sex work (and possibly other untold traumas too). 

Feelings of low self-worth and powerlessness cause Firdaus to seek out power and attention in harmful ways. She turns to a life to sex work, to feel in control of herself, and of her life. She tries to subvert gender roles, by making men beg her for sex, and pay her for the privelege of sleeping with her. This is Firdaus’ way of being financially independent, which validates her self-worth. Even when given the opportunity to have a respectable office job, she leaves it to return to prostution because she feels powerless as a female employee who is sexually harassed in the workplace. Rather than feeling like a victim in a legal working environment, she subjects herself to a dangerous, illegal career which jeopardises her health and life. Firdaus’ final acts of agency involves murdering the pimp who tried to control her, and refusing to have paid sex with a prince. Firdaus would rather die at execution than live in subjugation to men. Gohar (2016:183) agrees by saying, “She [Firdaus] prefers to be sentenced to death rather than live as a sex object or a cheap commodity at men’s disposal.” She is the opposite of her mother who tolerated abuse and conformed to patriarchal expectations. 

Firdaus’s mother remains faithful to an abusive husband, who denies her food, beats her, and disrespects her. Firdaus’s mum has conformed to her society’s expectations of her as a woman, wife, and mother. She remains submissive and obedient to her husband, works hard to take care of the household, while also babying her husband who refuses to take care of himself, let alone his family. Firdaus’ mother accepts abuse from her husband, as it is the societal norm for women to be abused. She does not stand up for herself, neither does she leave her husband. She allows her children to grow up in a harmful home, with violence and neglect. Growing up under these conditions, scars Firdaus both physically and psychologically, and gives her the determination to live a life which does not follow her mother’s path. Sadly though, whichever path Firdous chooses, she cannot escape the patriarchy which imposes gender oppression and gender-based violence on women. Even when Firdaus believes she’s safe with Bayoumi, he turns on her, and sexually abuses her. To make it even worse, he invites his friends to gang rape Firdaus. Firdaus cannot find the freedom and safety she desires because the patriarchy is designed to oppress women whichever way they turn. The psychiatrist who interviews Firdaus, was herself eventually jailed for speaking out against the patriarchy and political activism.

Nawal El Saadawi, who writes the book, also forms a part of the narrative as the character interviewing Fidaus. El Saadawi bases the novel on her real life experience with a woman on death row. Having the real-life interviewer as a part of the story, adds an interesting dimension to the novel because she is an educated, professional psychiatrist who also lives under the same patriarchal system as Firdaus, yet her life is not destructive in the way that Firdaus’ life is. This juxtaposition reminds the reader that Fidaus’ story is subjective to her own telling and perspective. However, the fact that the author felt an urgency to retell Firdaus’s story to the whole world, implies that El Saadawi is in agreement with Firdaus’ perspective. Even though their circumstances differ in some regards, there still remains commonalities which the author can identify with. This juxtaposition between doctor and prisoner, also reveals that women from poorer communities were subjected to more oppression and abuse, due to poverty and class divisions. El Saadawi, being the educated feminist and activist that she is, understands the need for Firdaus’ story to be told, to bring attention to the injustices done against women in Arab countries. 

In the final moments of Firdaus’ life she experiences detachment from the material world. She is willing to give up her life, as she believes that death is her ultimate achievement of power because she is going to a place where others have not been and she believes she is doing something different. In this transcendental state, Firdaus gives up her will to live. She refuses to appeal her legal case when offered support. Firdaus has given up trying to survive. Firdaus’ decision to accept the execution proves that the patriarchy ultimately controls womens’ lives. The patriarchy decides how a woman should live, and how she should die. It is Firdaus’ misguided belief that she gains power through death, which only goes to prove that Firdaus’ death is tragic, and not victorious. In her final decision to accept death, Firdaus has failed to transcend the wounds inflicted by the patriarchy upon her. 

Some scholars, such as Gohar (2016), Abdullah et al (n.d.), and Tugume (2021) argue that Firdaus died a free woman because she reached self-actualisation. However, I do not agree with this point of view because she was ultimately powerless to a system which took her life, leaving her dead. They killed her, they stopped her; she is no more because of them (the male oppressors). Her story brings awareness to female oppression and abuse, but it has not changed women’s circumstances in Arab cultures. The system still continues until present day, no matter how much women protest. The only women who find freedom are those who find asylum in other countries. Other scholars agree with my point of view. Fwangyil (2012:15) is one such scholar who agrees by saying: 

Unfortunately, female oppression is deeply ingrained in the culture of the societies which ensures the continuation of patriarchal control. This situation makes it impossible for women to seek ways of liberating themselves because doing so will be tantamount to challenging the age long tradition and customs of the people. This study is based on the premise that patriarchal moulded structures ensure that women remain in perpetual slavery.

In conclusion, it is evident from reading Woman at Point Zero, that different women react differently to the patriarchy. Some conform to the given gender roles by being submissive, uneducated, domesticated wives and mothers. This is displayed in Firdaus’s mother. Some women find ways to manipulate the system to their benefit, as seen in the characters of Firdaus’s aunt and Sharifa, but ultimately they are still under the oppression of men. Other women, like Firdaus, rebel against the system and try to subvert the gender roles, resulting in imprisonment or execution. And lastly, the few women who are educated, like the prison doctor, are only given limited power and are persecuted when they overstep the boundaries imposed by men. Whichever reaction the women have towards the patriarchal set up, they are never in control, or victorious. One way or another, they are controlled, changed, and harmed. Firdaus’ tragic ending in execution, is a stark reminder of what happens to women who try to seek agency in a patriarchal country. 

Works Cited:

Abdullah, O. et al. n.d. Manifestations of Hysteria in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero. The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies 21 (3): 99 – 107. Accessed 29 October 2022. 

El Saadawi, N. 1975. Woman at Point Zero. Zed Books Ltd., London, United Kingdom. 

Fwangyil, G.A. 2012. Cradle to Grave: An Analysis of Female Oppression in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero. An International Journal of Language, Literature and Gender Studies 1 (1): 15-28. Accessed 29 October 2022. 

Gohar, S. 2016. Empowering the Subaltern in Woman at Point Zero. Journal of International Women’s Studies 17 (4): 174-188. Accessed 29 October 2022. 

Tagume, B. 2021. Interrogating the Male-Female Gender Dichotomy in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero. Journal of International Women’s Studies.  Accessed 29 October 2022. 

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