Woman at Point Zero Summary
Woman at Point Zero is a novel published in Arabic in 1975. It is based on Nawal El Saadawi’s real-life encounter with a prisoner named Firdaus on the eve of her execution.
- Nawal El Saadawi’s interview with Firdaus reveals that Firdaus has experienced a life of poverty, sexual abuse, and patriarchal repression.
- Firdaus was subject to female genital mutilation and later became a prostitute, gaining economic freedom and amassing wealth.
- After years of violent abuse from men, Firdaus stabbed a pimp to death. As Firdaus is led to her execution, Saadawi contemplates how courageous Firdaus is.
Last Updated on March 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1105
Woman At Point Zero tells the real-life story of psychiatrist Nawal El Saadawi’s encounter with Firdaus, a woman who is on death row for murder. Saadawi is keen to speak to Firdaus but is told by the prison doctor that Firdaus refuses to communicate with anyone, even declining to sign an appeal to the president that might have secured her release. The prison doctor is responsible for the appeal to save Firdaus, propelled by his belief that “so gentle a woman” could never be responsible for murder.
After Firdaus refuses to speak to her, Saadawi leaves the prison to return home. Firdaus's refusal to talk is a massive disappointment to Saadawi, as it compromises her research, but it also causes her to feel an overwhelming sense of self-doubt. Firdaus's disregard for authority leads Saadawi to believe that Firdaus is better than any person on the planet, including the president. As Saadawi finally admits defeat and leaves, she describes feeling the weight of Firdaus's rejection lifted from her. Just as she is about to drive away, the warden appears, announcing that Firdaus has finally consented to the interview.
Firdaus begins to tell Saadawi the story of her life. Growing up in rural poverty, Firdaus struggles to reconcile the behavior of her father, who viciously beats her mother, with the man who is so devoted to his Islamic faith. Firdaus also recalls happier memories of childhood, playing in the fields and feeding the goats. It is during childhood that she has her first sexual experience with a local boy, Mohammadain. The two play “bride and bridegroom,” and Firdaus experiences electrifying sexual pleasure. When she later questions her mother as to how she gave birth to her without a father, her mother beats her before ordering another woman to perform female genital mutilation on Firdaus.
Firdaus is no longer free to play in the fields after this and is confined to the indoors. It is during this time that Firdaus’s older uncle becomes sexually interested in her. As he touches Firdaus, she tries desperately to reach the heights of pleasure she reached before but realizes that “part of” her being is gone forever. Firdaus remains close to her uncle, who teaches her the alphabet and encourages her to read books. After her parents die, Firdaus goes to live with her uncle in Cairo, but he soon stops reading, abandons his traditional Islamic dress, and marries his teacher’s daughter. Firdaus’s uncle grows increasingly distant from her over time, and she is sent to a girls’ boarding school.
After Firdaus’s graduation, her uncle and aunt arrange a marriage between Firdaus and her aunt’s uncle, a sixty-year-old “virtuous” man called Sheikh Mahmoud. Firdaus is disgusted by Sheikh Mahmoud, who has a facial deformity that causes a sore on his chin to leak pus. Over time, Sheikh Mahmoud becomes emotionally and physically abusive toward Firdaus, and she feels forced to run away. While on the run she meets Bayoumi, the owner of a local coffee shop. Where Sheikh Mahmoud was cruel, Bayoumi is kind. Firdaus goes to live with him in his apartment, but when she admits to Bayoumi that she craves financial independence, he becomes violent, keeping her locked in his apartment and allowing his friends to repeatedly rape and abuse her. With the help of a female neighbor, Firdaus finally manages to escape to the city.
While she is on the run for the second time, a wealthy-looking woman named Sharifa Salah el Dine approaches Firdaus. Sharifa, a high-class prostitute, takes Firdaus under her wing and shows her how to assert ownership over who has access to her body and to only accept those willing to pay the highest price.
One evening Firdaus hears a violent argument between Sharifa and her pimp, Fawzy, who wants to claim Firdaus as his own. As she listens through the wall, she hears Fawzy attack and rape Sharifa. Realizing that even Sharifa does not have true power over men, Firdaus runs away once more. After leaving the brothel, Firdaus has an epiphany and realizes that she has the power to choose which men she sleeps with. She soon becomes a wealthy and cultured woman.
Inside Firdaus’s apartment, her friend Di’aa tells her that though she treats her work with the clinical detachment of a doctor, unlike a doctor, she is “not respectable.” Firdaus is aghast at his words, which are “like the sharp tip of a plunging dagger.” She becomes consumed by Di’aa’s accusation and feels that she can no longer work as a prostitute. She takes a job as an office assistant, an apparently more respectable job, but finds that she must still operate within a sexual economy, as sex is expected in exchange for an increased salary.
While working at the company, Firdaus falls deeply in love with her coworker Ibrahim. When Ibrahim announces his engagement to the chairman’s daughter, however, Firdaus is left devastated. As a prostitute, she shielded her true self behind a “shell,” but in love, she gave “my body and my soul, my mind and all the effort I could muster.” After this disappointment, Firdaus realizes that she can earn more money and enjoy increased sexual autonomy as a prostitute and returns to the profession. She again amasses great wealth and attracts powerful, high-paying clients.
One such client is Marzouk, who demands to become Firdaus’s pimp, claiming that as a woman and a prostitute she requires his protection in exchange for money. Instead of accepting the threats and violations as she has before, Firdaus takes the knife he has pulled on her and stabs the man to death. She leaves him for dead and then meets an Arab prince who offers her $3,000 in exchange for sex. After sleeping with the prince, she slaps him and rips up the money before confessing to the murder of her pimp. The prince, who is deeply alarmed, calls the police, and Firdaus is arrested and sentenced to death for murder.
Back in Firdaus’s prison cell, she tells Saadawi that she will be executed, not because the police are afraid that she will murder another man, but because they wish to censure the truth that protects the patriarchal society in which they all live: “My life means their death. My death means their life. They want to live,” she tells Saadawi. As her story reaches its conclusion, armed policemen come to collect Firdaus to take her to be executed. As Firdaus is led to her death, Saadawi realizes that Firdaus is much braver than she could ever hope to be.
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