October 4, 2012

Woman At Point Zero

Nawal El Saadawi, an elderly Egyptian woman, would appear at first glance to be an unlikely candidate for a radical feminist.  Her kindly grandmotherly exterior masks a sharp intellect and a fierce activism that seeks to improve the plight of women in Africa and her beloved homeland of Egypt.  El Saadawi is best known in the West for her works dealing with ritualistic female genital mutilation.

Saadawi was born in 1931 the eldest daughter of a government official in the Ministry of Education.  Her father’s actions against the British during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 resulted in his exile to a small village in the Nile Delta. Saadawi’s father, a progressive, taught his daughter to stand up for herself and fostered a healthy sense of self-worth.  Unfortunately both her parents died leaving her to care for her eight siblings.  Despite these hardships, Saadawi earned her MD in 1955, specializing in women’s health issues.  Her training in and concern with women’s health issues led her to study the physical and psychological effects of the hardships women faced due to the society in which they lived.  In response to these issues, Saadawi published several books dealing with the subjects.  These works created enough controversy that she was fired from her position as Director of Public Health.  Her refusal to back down led to her imprisonment in 1981.  By 1988 she was forced to flee to the US due to death threats from Islamic fundamentalists.  She taught at Duke University until 1996 when she was able to return to Egypt.  There she again became a vocal advocate of woman’s rights, speaking out against repression and physical abuse, including female circumcision.  Saadawi continues to be active in Egypt and even took part in the peaceful protests that resulted in the ousting of Mubarak.

Woman at Point Zero was written in 1975.  It follows the story of an Egyptian prostitute named Firdaus who is awaiting execution for the stabbing death of her pimp.  The narrator, a female psychologist, visits one of the Egyptian prisons to study the incarcerated women held there.  During her visit she hears of a very special prisoner, Firdaus, who is scheduled to be executed that week.  After initially rejecting the narrator’s visit, Firdaus decides to meet with her the night before her execution to tell her story.  Firdaus was born into a poor farming family in the Nile Delta.  Her early childhood is marked by the hard labor she engaged in at a young age in the fields with her siblings.  Her task was to carry water to the workers in a heavy clay pitcher atop her head.  Her fragile frame could barely take the strain on her head and neck.   Her father was very abusive of her mother, treating her like a slave and beating her.  Her mother, absorbed with her own problems, ignored young Firdaus until she was caught playing “bride and groom” with the neighbor’s son in the hay shed.  Firdaus tells the narrator that she was less than eight at the time and she remembers her mother bringing a woman with a sharp knife or razor.  The woman cut part of her and removed the joyous warm feelings that came from her meetings with the neighbor’s son.  At this time her mother has her start working in the household rather than the fields.  Rather than improving the quality of her life however, the move results in her molestation at the hands of her uncle.  Following the death of her real mother and the remarriage of her father, she is taken by her uncle to Cairo.  There she is “reborn a second time” into a new life.  Her uncle continues to use her as a servant, but manages to marry into a wealth sheik’s family.  This marriage results in Firdaus being sent to school for the first time.  She manages to gain her secondary school diploma, but is unable to emotionally connect with anyone there.  The lone exception is a female teacher whom she falls in love with, but is rejected and forced to stay away from.  Upon graduation, it is Firdaus’ hope to attend University, but this dream is shattered when her uncle sells her to a much older wealth man as a wife in order to pay off his debts.  Her husband is abusive and very controlling and she eventually decides to run away rather than stay and suffer like her mother had.  Her life on the street results in a series of horrible experiences with men kidnaping her and raping her, sometimes keeping her as a sex slave.  Eventually she sees a prostitute exchanging money with a client.  This event changes her life as she realizes the fundamental dynamic in society: the male desire for sex and the power structure needed to maintain control over access to sex. The exchange of money for sex is the simplest form of this dynamic.  Furthermore, it allows the woman some control over her life by empowering her.  With this in mind she becomes a prostitute, first in brothel, and later as an independent.  While at the brothel she witnesses the powerful and wealth Madame being assaulted by a pimp, and decides that even this profession is under the thumb of men.  She quits her very successful venture as a prostitute to become a professional office worker.  She manages to gain respect in the company by not sleeping with her bosses for promotions, but ultimately becomes disillusioned with her life after being rejected by a man she loved in the company.  She returns to a life as a successful prostitute, but her past catches up with her and the pimp who beat her old Madame is no after her.  After a fight in which he draws a knife on her, Firdaus manages to kill the pimp with his own knife.  She confesses her crime to a rich and powerful client in order to be caught.  She is tried and convicted and is sentenced to death.  Despite the offer of a sentence reduction to life in prison, he continues to await her execution, preferring death to a powerless life.  The story ends with Firdaus being led away to the gallows and the narrator sitting in her cell in stunned silence.

I enjoyed this novel; however it is not the type of story to read if you are already depressed or sad.  The dark nature of the tale really makes the reader think of just how oppressed and miserable life can be for women around the world.  The author’s take on the female/male power dynamic caused me to re-evaluate some of my views on the issue.  Despite the changes that occurred in Firdaus’ life, each resulted in her control and abuse at the hands of the men in her life.  One of the most powerful moments in the book for me, occurred in the beginning and only takes up a few lines in the text.  I am, of course, referring to the female circumcision.   The concept was vaguely familiar to me prior to this book, but since reading it I have researched more on the subject.  What I found will haunt me for a long time.  Even now I can’t seem to close my eyes without seeing the horrific images.  It is something that seems so fundamentally wrong and oppressive.  I struggle to place it within the context of a foreign culture and thus in the realm of an acceptable practice.   This event in the book colors everything that happens in Firdaus’ life.  This is the second Egyptian novel I have read.  Both have been dark and had endings that do not work out well for the characters.  I wonder if this is a reflection of Egyptian culture or simple my choice of novels.

Image Credit: Joseph Dilag / Shutterstock

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