Woman at Point Zero

Dialogues

Woman at Point Zero is a powerful Egyptian novel relaying the life story of a woman awaiting death row in a Cairo prison for murdering a pimp. Her crime is one she confesses to with no shame.

The book opens with a confident, concerned woman psychologist and author trying to learn the story behind quiet, patient Firdaus. She is a mysterious, ex-prostitute who refuses to speak with anyone in or out of the prison. Firdaus at last agrees to speak to the woman psychologist/author, and slowly unravels her tragic life history before the woman. It is a lifetime rife with abuse, oppression, abandonment, being taken advantage of on all levels, and of consistent rejection- by nearly every human she encountered from child to adulthood.

This is not a narrative you want to read on a particularly dark day or low point in your life unless you can come away with a sense of gratitude for your own experience. Firdaus graphically, and unabashedly reveals the movement toward a frenzied dance with fear and anger, one slowly picking up tempo with each man or woman who walked in and away from her life carrying a small piece of her soul. Older, secondary education and college students would be the best audiences for whom the book might be adopted as a course text. Its contents are powerful, though would be best examined in terms of the political, social, personal, and economic contexts under which her story took place.

Firdaus takes readers through her turbulent childhood, from being abused and witnessing the abuse of her mother by her father, to her mysterious female circumcision as a young woman, to the twisted molestation by her uncle, betrayal by lovers, and on to bitter exploitation by pimps, and last and possibly most ruthless- the persistent taunting of men, women, and law enforcement- as she struggles to live an adult life she has been given no tools to live.

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  Dialogues

Cairo Cityscape

Thematically contrasted against other Middle Eastern novels such as Men in the Sun (Kanafani) and The Day the Leader Was Killed (Mahfouz), Woman at Point Zero is less about colonialism, and more about taking a subjective look into the intrinsic underdevelopment of marginalized citizens, and how the absence of justice fosters through Egyptian politics, economics, and society. Firdaus is one of these citizens.

One interesting dimension of Middle Eastern literature within postcolonial studies is its portrayal of race. The inclusion or exclusion of various people groups is more about socioeconomic class than anything else, as experienced in texts like Woman at Point Zero and The Day the Leader was Killed. The commitment to "survival" makes a fork in the road with these two authors, as Mahfouz builds a story around the middle-class family of Elwan, one whose primary concern is falling into a lower class and not being able to live the comfortable lifestyle they are accustomed to. It is the story of political change under the rule of Sadat, whereas Saadawi's story follows one woman pushing against unwanted roles she is repeatedly forced to play within a patriarchal society.

Firdaus lives and remains in the lower class portion of society, regardless of how much money she earns as a prostitute. Despite her attempts to move beyond her socioeconomic classification, she consistently ends up turning back to prostitution and is rarely treated as anything more than the dregs of Cairo society. Reading these two, contrasting texts against one another poses an interesting before-and-after comparison question of how "middle class" Arabic or Palestinian life looks different- after reading lower class perspectives of similar political situations like Firdaus'.

Another parallel between The Day the Leader was Killed and Woman at Point Zero is the role of women as political and social tools for men. Randa, in the Day the Leader was Killed, experiences a situation along the lines of Firdaus' with Ibrahim in her marriage to Anwar. Each woman believes she is actively and positively contributing to the revolutionary struggles in the vice of the economic traps put in place by the Infinitah. Firdaus and Randa are "ethically" prostituted in their involvement with the men. Firdaus is both ethically/politically violated by Ibrahim and then literally prostituted by him through the veil of "revolutionary struggle" he hid under, approaching her as a noble advocate for the common people. Once again, Firdaus is shaken from any hopes of being desired for more than a sexual or political tool, as Ibrahim uses the notion of revolution only as a trick to get her into bed- for free. Randa too, in her disappointment at ending the commitment with Elwan, accepts the proposal of Elwan's boss Anwar, an older man who pursues her with no visible remorse as another political and social tool to his gain. Each of these texts run along the same lines, bringing up similar issues until their endings. In Woman at Point Zero, Firdaus ends up tragically destined to death in a distorted state of happiness at the prospect of entering on a spiritual journey no one else has taken or can take away from her. Randa reaches a similar state of passive acceptance, and though not in prison, shares similar despair at living a life apart from Elwan.

  Notes

Historically, Politically Speaking

In his book Intimate Enemies: Jews and Arabs in a Shared Land, Benvenisiti, a reporter for the New York Times, probes into the political situation responsible for the "elusive peace" between these groups. A peace, which currently seems more unpromising than it did during the volatile struggle for resolution during the 1990's Gulf War. This text provides a grounded picture of the Middle East, taking into account the United State's contributions to the political climate through unsuccessful land negotiations determined through the early portions of the '80's Camp David accords. Benvenisiti swims in the deep end of the pool, but his theoretical analyses are very accessible by his use of precise, no-frills language, and colloquial tone with which he addresses readers. In the "Elusive Peace" chapter, he discusses the veil of peace created by the U.S. feigning interest in peace negotiations 1991. The problem however, being that the US never actually made a public, concrete commitment to sit down and work the messy situation out with the participating countries. He sets up well the circular and hidden political agendas of the US, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Israel contributing to the further complicating of the peace process, pushing the chances for permanent peace farther and farther apart. This book provides a fascinating backdrop to examine the political and historical contexts scaffolding stories like Woman at Point Zero, Men in the Sun, and The Day the Leader was Killed.

About the Author: Nawal El Saadawi

Saadawi is a graduate of the University of Cairo, class of 1955. There she earned a degree in psychiatry and held a government position as the Director of Public Health, until 1972, when her controversial Women and Sex was published (Pasquini, 65). She is the author of over thirty books which have been translated into approximately twenty languages. Her most recent work is Love in the Kingdom of Oil (Pasquini, 65). Saadawi consistently speaks out internationally on what she feels is political injustice, including attacks on US foreign policy. She was recently arrested in the summer of 2001,in a campaign by Islamic fundamentalists resistant to her feminist political stance, to force a divorce from her Muslim husband, Dr. Sharif Hattatta, a man who is reported to exhibit great respect for his wife and her devotion to freedom for women. Lawyer Nabih Al Wahsh filed a case that the marriage be dissolved on the grounds that Saadawi indicates an abandonment of the Islamic faith (We!, 8). On July 30, 2001 the Egyptian Court rejected the petition, leading Saadawi down another path of political reform to abolish the "Hisba Law" which allows for "any Muslim to sue other people for promoting beliefs that are deemed harmful to society" (We!, 8). Her "rebellious" writings on "women's oppression in cultural and religious traditions" bring about sharp criticism by many who claim she is "a troublemaker who became famous by siding with Westerners in their prejudices against Arab and Islamic culture" (We!, 8). With Saadawi boldly labeling US military in Afghanistan during the fall of 2001 as "real terrorism," it is hard to take such a criticism seriously.

Nationalism by Male Reformers and Egyptian Women's Movement

Firdaus' world as portrayed by Saadawi in the mid-1970's had its political roots in the hundred years of Egyptian government preceding the story. Palestinian Women of Gaza and the West Bank by Suha Sabbagh contains a brief overview in the book's introduction tracing the male reformers in Egypt and the women's rights movement as it gathered momentum from the 1870's to late 20th century. There are five, fascinating pages where Sabbagh traces the contributions of early, modernist writers around the turn of the century during the "early contact with European culture" and the adoption of the "Western genres" like the novel (20). Postcolonial critic Edward Said speaks frequently in the chapter to the "cultural renaissance in the Arab world" as a result of the changes in Islamic world view by European colonization (20).

The book then raises the question of new, more liberating "ideas about women's roles that began to emerge in Egypt" as Arab women saw Western women being educated as scholars and playing significant political and social roles in Europe. The women's rights movement was, naturally, complicated by the religious mandates of Islam. Male reformers like Qasim Amin who visited France and returned to Egypt with a clear objection against women's reform, believing it was in direct violation of the laws of the Quran, or ordinations by the shariah (21). There were several male reformers during the 1870's interested in "women's emancipation" for Arab women, such as Ahmed El Shidyak and Riffaa El-Tahtawi, two men concerned with modernizing education to include young women (21). One woman author at the time, Kumari Jayawardena, author of Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, "affirms that during this period nearly every aspect of women's emancipation was being discussed, with very little agreement among authors (21).

The mere fact of women daring to challenge existing political laws barring them from participation in public, governmental affairs suggests that, "their consciousness had been transformed" (22). Women were "willing to question traditional values that require exclusion from the political sphere" (22). Sabbagh notes that National Liberation and a Feminist Consciousness were "two, separate struggles taking place simultaneously" (22). Egyptian women, as early as 1919 "demonstrated on the streets of Cairo, chanting nationalist slogans through veils covering their faces" (23). Only three, short years later Egypt "gained its independence" from Britain, and "political activism and street demonstrations in which women participated had led led to the emergence of a political movement that also recognized the rights of women" (23). From this time forward, a number of Egyptian women novelists "rose to prominence through their writings" (23).

Sabbagh mentions several women writers of this period who paved the way for authors like Saadawi to openly publish their work. Malak Hifini Nassif (pen name "Bahissat al-Badiaa" was one early writer to receive an education and was very "vocal in her criticism of the institutions that form a woman's life: polygamy and divorce, denial of education, veiling and seclusion, and denial of the right to work outside of the home" (23). Her program for "compulsory elementary education for women" was approved and put into place in 1911 by the Egyptian Legislative Assembly (23). Two other women authors, May Ziyada and in the West, Huda Shaarawi each participated anticolonialist activities, working to bring Egyptian women's issues to the forefront of political agendas (24).

As Americans living under a long history of democracy, we often condemn and criticize nationalism, perhaps in light of such tragic historical events like Hitler's mass genocide of Jewish people during W.W. II. To nationalism's credit however, is the platform it established for women to "voice their demands for greater equality and to be heard" in their push toward emancipation. Sabbagh concludes the section stating the unfortunate fact that post 1930's the "interest in women's rights began to decline" and "lost its early appeal" among Egyptian women (24).

It is authors like Saadawi whom I would credit with the resurgence of women's rights concerns being brought to Egyptian legislators. Saadawi, as stated in the "about the author" section, is repeatedly criticized and even arrested for her work to abolish laws like the Hisba, permitting Muslims to sue (and in Saadawi's case, call for a forced divorce) anyone who "promotes beliefs deemed harmful to society." Saadawi is labeled a "militant" feminist, though by American definition and tradition, her struggle to keep her marriage and maintain her family life is closer to conservative, family values than stereotypical "liberal feminist" ones. Her situation is one of the best examples of the drastic differences between living in a country like Egypt and one that attempts democracy. Islamic religion and tradition is so deeply embedded in Egyptian law that it regularly spills over into the personal lives of citizens, dissolving any separation of church from state. Saadawi's life is marked with one political battle after another, from the publication of her first book. What is incredible about this author is that she calmly accepts the situation and begins work on changing the laws and traditions responsible for each battle she faces. Her persistent working for the "women's cause," or, in the case of the Hisba law, the cause of any less-fortunate citizen charged with violating it, but would not have the means to push back, has allowed Saadawi an active role in affecting thousands of lives for the better- now, and well beyond her death.

  Links

Aerial Photograph of Cairo, Egypt, Nile River.

1. Emory University's Postcolonial Site: Saadawi. A brief biography of Saadawi, bibliography, photos, and links to other postcolonial sites on this page. *

2. Extensive Saadawi biography. An in-depth highlighting of Saadawi's life from the standpoint of her contributions within the realm of feminism. **

3. Woman at Point Zero book excerpts, biographical & teaching information. A wonderfully rich site with educational and general resources about Saadawi herself, the novel Woman at Point Zero specifically, and links to other African authors. ***

4. Personal Interview with Dr. Nawal El Saadawi. A transcript of a conversation between Saadawi and interviewer Stephanie McMillan from 1999 for Two Eyes magazine. **

5. Online Criticism Collection: Woman at Point Zero. Internet Public Library's links to critical sites on this novel. **

6. Further Reading and Notes of Saadawi's Works. Provides notes on her most popular texts and different pricing options for purchasing many of her books.*

7. Articles by and about Dr. Saadawi. Links to articles Saadawi herself has written as well as to articles written about her. Some of the links do not work, but the ones that do link to useful information. **

8. Brief Saadawi bio and Selection of Her Works. A thorough description and critique with excerpts from Saadawi's many books, by Arab Worldbooks. ***

9. Saadawi Call for Action Site. Describes her most recent (2001) court and governmental battles with Cairo authorities, with a call for written action to government officials from Saadawi supporters worldwide. This page has some technical errors on it, but an accurate description of Saadawi's current legal status within Egypt. *

10. Link to a Review of Jazz-trumpeter Dave Douglas's Witness album. The composer/performer's first "overtly political" CD, I've not heard it but it seems tremendous. He also dedicates a 24-minute long "epic" of Naguib Mahfouz (author of a great companion text to Woman at Point Zero- The Day the Leader Was Killed.) Definitely worth checking out- both this review and the audio itself. **

11. Multitude of Feminism & Islamic Women Links. Links to sites for Arab women, Islamic women's issues, world & international news, women & family issues, etc.

12. Egyptian History Since the 1952 Revolution. Easy-to-read highlights of Egyptian history prior to 1952. An excellent site for an overview of the politics in the background of many of Saadawi's novels. ***

13. Purchase Woman at Point Zero. Order the novel from Amazon.com and read customer reviews of the book.**

14. Read a literary review and reflection of Woman at Point Zero. Article published by Tehelka.com, authored by Amitava Kumar, who teaches English at Penn State University. An interesting, personal, new slant taken in the review of this novel.**

15. International Solidarity Network for Women Living under Muslim Laws. Further information about Saadawi's recent court battles as well as news and events effecting women in Africa and the Middle East in their struggle for equal opportunities.***

16.City Guide to Cairo, Egypt. Travel information, weather, terrain, photographs, restaurants, hotels and much more.**

  Teaching

Library Research:

Following are some helpful scholarly journal articles to supplement your teaching of any Saadawi text.

Aghacy, Samira. "Nawal El Saadawi: Better to Pay and be Free than to Pay and be Oppressed." Al-Raida XVIII-XIX (2001): 2-3.

Francq, Susan Mumbua. "The Nawal El Saadawi Reader." Journal of Gender Studies 9 (2000): 100-102.

"Good News on Nawal El Saadawi." We! 11 (2001): 8.

Katz, Alyssa. "Portrait of activist as a young girl." Village Voice 44 (1998): 66-67.

Mantilla, Karla. "NWSA: Getting a Global Perspective: Nawal El Saadawi: Keynote Speaker." Off Our Backs, XXIV (1994): 8-9.

Pasquini, Elaine. "El Saadawi calls US foreign policy 'real terrorism'." Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (65 21) (2002): 65.

Zaatari, Zeina. "Men, Women, and GOD(s): Nawal El Saadawi and Arab Feminist Poetics." Middle East Women's Studies Review 13 (1998): 20-21.

Cultural Studies & Writing Teaching Methods Journal Articles:

Gere, Anne Ruggles. "Revealing Silence: Rethinking Personal Writing." CCC 53 (2001) 203- 223.

Gonslaves, Lisa. "Making Connections: Addressing the Pitfalls of White Faculty/Black Male Student Communication." CCC 53 (2002): 435- 465.

Powell, Malea. "Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing." CCC 53 (2002): 396- 434.

Shafer, Gregory. "Literary Transactions and Women Writers." Teaching English in the Two-Year College 29 (2001): 135- 143.

Young, Morris. "Standard English and Student Bodies: Institutionalizing Race and Literacy in Hawai'i." College English 64 (2002): 405- 431.

Young Adult Companion Texts:

Frank, Otto ed. The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank. New York: Bantam, 1995.

This classic tale would provide an interesting contrast to Firdaus' experience. The resilience of the human spirit manifests itself differently in each story, though their experiences are markedly different, their survival through their coming-of-age shares a quality of raw survival. Each possesses her own wisdom, and each speaks from living conditions "few teenagers have ever known." Anne's innocence, and Firdaus' street smarts hold much potential for analysis and discovery of personal values and beliefs central to critical thought.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. Habibi. New York: Simon Pulse, 1997.

A wonderful story of "Liyana," a girl of Palestinian heritage who has grown up in St. Louis, MO. Her father decides to move their family back to Palestine, and Liyana learns much about her Arab heritage after settling there. She also meets a young Jewish boy, Omer, and the classic "Romeo and Juliet" story enters in, each wanting to teach their families to tolerate and acceptance.

Wong, Jade Snow. Fifth Chinese Daughter. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1950.

An coming of age story from the perspective of a Chinese American girl's perspective. It is an interesting narrative to pair with works like Woman at Point Zero, I, Rigoberta Menchu, The Dark Child, or The Nine Guardians. Snow struggles with growing up "American" and not losing her Chinese cultural heritage she so values. A unique perspective.

Recommended Course Reader:
One possible companion text for the novels mentioned on our site is a multicultural reader from Allyn & Bacon One World, Many Cultures (Second Edition). This reader has sixty-eight nonfiction excerpts from writers like Rigoberta Menchu, Camara Laye, Jamaica Kincaid and many other well-known individuals from a broad span of cultures. These stories aid students in exploring different cultural perspectives and finding their own through writing, as well as providing a base for literary interpretation and criticism within the strategies present in each writer's piece.

 

Resources for Whiteness Studies: Whiteness studies involve the interpretation of literature through examining racism inherent in national, international, and local institutions, and could be employed to further examine the racism dynamics present in Woman at Point Zero. Evaluating the role of whiteness can easily begin with students characterizing their conception of the book as American citizens.

Questions for Class Discussion:

1. Does Egypt have its own "Whiteness" tradition between races and classes?
2. How might "whiteness" have played a part in Firdaus' story developing as it did?
3. What might be some of the racial characteristics (or freedom, womanhood, manhood, individualism, etc.) that surface repeatedly in African or Egyptian literary traditions?
4. How does reading Morrison's perspective on the role of whiteness being created by the minority population's "unfree" state change or not change your interpretation of Saadawi's story?

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Link to Gregory Jay's Whiteness Studies Site. A rich site developed by one of the leading researchers on whiteness studies, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The site is full of historical and pop culture conception of whiteness. Includes links to further scholarly interests for related reading.

  Citations

Aghacy, Samira. "Nawal El Saadawi: Better to Pay and be Free than to Pay and be Oppressed." Al-Raida XVIII-XIX (2001): 2- 3.

Benvenisti, Meron. Intimate Enemies: Jews and Arabs in a Shared Land. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995.

Francq, Susan Mumbua. "The Nawal El Saadawi Reader." Journal of Gender Studies 9 (2000).

"Good News on Nawal El Saadawi." News item from We! 11 (2001): 8.

Katz, Alyssa. "Portrait of activist as a young girl." Village Voice 44 (1998): 66- 67.

Mantilla, Karla. "NWSA: Getting a Global Perspective: Nawal El Saadawi: Keynote Speaker." Off Our Backs XXIV (1994): 8-9.

Mazrui, Alamin M. "Sex and Patriarchy: Gender Relations in Mawt al-rajul al-wahid 'ala al-ard (God Dies by the Nile)." Research in African Studies 28 (1997): 17-32.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1992.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. Habibi. New York: Simon Pulse, 1997.

Pasquini, Elaine. "El Saadawi calls US foreign policy 'real terrorism'." Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (65 21) (2002): 65-69.

Saadawi, Nawal El. The Hidden Face of Eve. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980.

Saadawi, Nawal El. Woman at Point Zero. New York: Zed Books Ltd., 1975.

Sabbagh, Suha. Palestinian Women of Gaza and the West Bank. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998.

Wong, Jade Snow. Fifth Chinese Daughter. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1950.

Zaatari, Zeina. "Men, Women, and GOD(s): Nawal El Saadawi and Arab Feminist Poetics." Middle East Women's Studies Review 13 (1998): 20-21.

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