Nawal El Saadawi is the author who introduced me to Feminist Arab literature. Known as Egypt’s radical feminist, she has dedicated her life to fighting patriarchy and female oppression without any regard to the public outrage and criticisms received in response (despite losing her job for her political activism). She was a doctor, a writer, a feminist who is often identified as the “Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World.” Her works explore controversial issues such as prostitution, domestic violence, religious fundamentalism and female genital mutilation.
Woman at point zero follows the life of Firdaus, a woman abused by men and whose desire for revenge and freedom ends in the killing of a man. Her act of revenge is presented as a cry of despair in a society where she felt so hopeless in the face of injustice, that death was the only way out. The book begins one night before her execution in a prison as she recounts her story to a female psychiatrist with so much urgency and vulnerability in her voice. We are slowly but painfully introduced to her past as a prostitute suppressing her feelings and trauma from earlier experiences of sexual abuse and humiliation. Her suffering is almost palpable in her words which leaves us feeling so uncomfortable, yet unable to close the book…
Firdaus is a character I will never be able to forget. Her strength and suffering made me angry, sad, appalled at times, yet I never doubted her story. I had many conversations with some friends (mainly Europeans) about what she experienced and most of them could not believe that a woman could face so much suffering and neglect just because of her gender. Unfortunately, as an Arab, her story resonated with the harsh reality of male dominance and social oppression which pervades our societies. I truly loved how Nawal El Saadawi depicted the intricate contradictions and hypocrisy of Arab societies when she described Firdaus’s uncle as a semi-progressive man who encouraged her to go to school and read to her, only to take advantage of her when she needed him the most.
As I was reading, I couldn’t help but expect the narrator to reflect more on this woman’s heartbreaking story but I realized later that it was a brilliant way of letting us think for ourselves. El Saadawi’s lyrical prose is both eye-opening and disturbing given the context. I appreciated her shedding light on Firdaus’s empowerment so as not to leave us in complete darkness. However, the more I read this book, the more I thought “it has to get better for Firdaus at some point.” Yet the fact that it doesn’t empowered her to become a voice for other women with the same fate.
Women at point zero is a classic Feminist novel that I believe everyone should read. The writing is honest, simple, and poetic which makes it feel as though it was a heart-to-heart conversation. Nawal El Saadawi urges us to examine the world around us, awareness being the first step towards emancipation. If you read this book, you will be shaken when you will realize that Firdaus is at peace with what she went through, as if she couldn’t have betrayed herself believing in a different fate. This realization will make you want to fight for Firdaus’s voice to be more heard, for Nawal El Saadawi’s writing to get the love and recognition it deserves.
The power of El Saadawi’s writing can be felt through the following excerpt which has stayed with me to this day:
“The street was an endless expanse stretched out before my eyes like a sea. I was just a pebble thrown into it, battered by the waves, tossed here and there, rolling over and over to be abandoned somewhere on the shore.”