Monday, October 2, 2017

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El-Saadawi

Firdaus, is an Egyptian woman, who suffers violence from men in her role as a wife, prostitute, and office worker. The plot reveals Firdaus in different relationships with men that do not see her as a human being but as an object. She forces them in different ways to see her as a person and in the effort, fails to change anything but expose male hypocrisy and dominance in a patriarchal system that denies women freedom of choice. She uses her body to rebel against the status quo or violence done to her through prostitution, but even that independence is temporary as a man forces himself to be her pimp. Firdaus symbolizes oppressed woman with no real freedoms whose lives are negated and stymied intellectually and physically; where there is no respect or opportunity in life to pursue love, independence, or a career.

This book examines a peasant woman turned prostitute in Egypt after the post-colonial British occupation, how she is oppressed by a patriarchal class system that is an outgrowth of Western Imperialism, and how all women are duplicitous in accepting forms of subservience or oppression by being silent regarding social status or position that is abused by male violence or dominance. The historical context is not directly applied to the actual text but gleaned from the author’s interviews and imprisonment as an outspoken opponent of Anwar Sadat’s government during the 70s, known for jailing hundreds of intellectuals and critics. Arab literature often has the image of a prostitute that represents a nation that has “prostituted” itself to a Western nation in efforts to be modern and the author uses this notion on an individual level. Often, this type of Arab literature shows corruption against colonial aggression; however, this book shows aggression not in the objectification of women but in the sexual relationships between men and the woman, Firdaus, who cannot escape her class position in a rigid society that offers no freedom.

The novel starts with a female psychiatrist doctor, or the narrator, wanting to speak to Firdaus, a woman in jail, who is going to be hanged for murdering her pimp. At first, Firdaus refuses to see the doctor. Fridaus’s silence is all that gives her control over those in authority that have abused and oppressed her. The doctor is a part of a privileged class that accepts a system where men exploit women. The author’s choice of choosing a privileged female narrator removes the idea that the character is a victim, but that the reader is duplicitous in his or her silence as well. This seems like a good way to reach readers who are from industrialized countries and might just write Firdaus off as a victim. It might motivate the reader, regardless of country or socio-economic status, to speak out against the violence and oppression of females with a collective voice. 

Women everywhere should recognize Firdaus as a person of no authority or freedom who is stuck in a flawed social, economic, and political society that is patriarchal, but who is symbolic in her refusal to be dominated by men in spirit and mind. 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. She is at point zero because even though she has no control physically, authoritatively, and suffers class oppression, she can control her mind and the truth of her situation by refusing to give into the system whether that means begging for her life to be spared, being silent, or speaking out. She chooses to speak the truth. Her end is tragic, but it is her choice and freedom lies in no longer physically existing. This is a short book with layers of meaning the reader can peel through.

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