Woman at Point Zero Characters
The main characters in Woman at Point Zero are Nawal El Saadawi and Firdaus.
- Nawal El Saadawi is a writer, psychiatrist, and women’s rights crusader who interviews Firdaus about the story of her life.
- Firdaus is the protagonist of the novel. She has experienced a life of poverty and exploitation and has worked for most of her adult life as a high-class prostitute. During her interview with Nawal El Saadawi, Firdaus is in prison for the murder of her pimp. She is executed at the end of the book.
Last Updated on March 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1153
Nawal El Saadawi
The author of Woman at Point Zero, Saadawi is a writer and psychiatrist whose latest research involves interviewing female inmates in the infamous Qanatir prison. As Saadawi conceives of both herself and Firdaus as real people and fictionalized characters in the novel, a duality is born that allows Saadawi a degree of creativity and freedom within the framework of the novel.
The contrast between Saadawi and Firdaus is evident from the start, as Saadawi is a respected scientist, writer, and scholar, while Firdaus is a former prostitute and a murderer. After hearing about Firdaus, Saadawi becomes consumed by a desire to interview her. Saadawi’s sense of inadequacy is born out of Firdaus’s apparent rejection of her and leads her to describe herself as “nothing but a small insect crawling upon the land amidst millions of other insects.” This metaphor situates Saadawi as base and parasitic and is an image closely tied to the hypercritical part of her mind that surfaces during times of loss or abandonment. This imagery also denies Saadawi’s individualism and pride in her intellectual prowess as a researcher, writer, and psychiatrist.
After Firdaus agrees to the interview, Saadawi’s feelings are transformed along with the environment around her, restoring her sense of self-worth. Yet the fictional Saadawi’s self-worth remains precarious, as she is again overwhelmed by feelings of failure after witnessing the injustice of Firdaus’s tale. Saadawi the author, in contrast to her fictional counterpart, was already a prominent women’s rights activist. While the fictional Saadawi’s reaction to the plight of Egyptian women is one of despair, the author Saadawi was able to utilize the power of literature to shine a light on the oppressive forces policing women’s lives in Egyptian society, in a bid to drive women to resistance. As Saadawi asserted later on in her career, words have the power to expose the most insidious parts of society, as “Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”
Firdaus is the protagonist and focal narrator of Woman at Point Zero, relaying the story of her life as a woman in Egyptian society before her imprisonment, as she sits in Qanatir prison facing the last moments of her life. Firdaus’s situation is reflected in the title of Saadawi’s novel: Firdaus is “at point zero,” as she will soon lose everything, including her life. This situation puts her in a unique position of experiencing a peace and tranquility of mind that allows her to tell the story of her story like a witness rather than an active agent.
Firdaus spends most of her life trying to attain freedom and respect, but the freedom she desires is constantly at odds with the systematic oppression of patriarchal society. From childhood, she learns that men will always have power over her, and she is often paralyzed by her lack of personal freedom, as most of her choices are made for her.
Firdaus arguably remains in prostitution until the end of her life because she understands that true independence is not possible for her. She comments toward the end of the novel that “All women are prostitutes,” and her own experience proves this to her. While working as an office assistant, she sees that women’s economic status is still dependent on sexually satisfying men.
The bleak ending of the novel, as Firdaus is led to her execution, appears to confirm that the patriarchal policies that govern her society have won, but Firdaus perceives death as an opportunity to move beyond this world and into another one. She therefore faces death in the same way she faced life: with dignity and strength.
Sharifa is a high-class prostitute whom Firdaus meets after fleeing Bayoumi’s apartment for the city. Sharifa lives a life of luxury and services only high-paying clients. Meeting Sharifa represents a new phase of Firdaus’s life, as she realizes for the first time that she can be selective about the clients she sleeps with and can take advantage of men’s willingness to pay for sex by charging higher rates. While Sharifa exudes confidence and power, Firdaus ultimately sees that she, too, is governed by patriarchal policies. Firdaus’s escape from Sharifa’s brothel highlights the disparity between the two characters, with Firdaus continuing to fight for a better life, while Sharifa feels forced to submit to the abuse and sexual violence of her pimp.
Firdaus’s uncle, alongside her father, sets a blueprint for Firdaus’s complex and combative relationship with men throughout the novel. He lives in Cairo and, as a scholar, encourages Firdaus’s education by letting her read books and learn the alphabet. But like Di’aa, who also engages Firdaus’s interest through stimulating her intellect, Firdaus’s uncle is ultimately duplicitous. Although Firdaus’s uncle gives her a home and education following her parents’ deaths, his altruism is short-lived, and he is ultimately complicit in marrying Firdaus off to his wife’s abusive uncle, Sheikh Mahmoud. He thus puts his drive for power above familial responsibility, as the freedom he initially represented resolves into the revelation that he, too, is an active collaborator in a system of oppression.
Firdaus’s mother is a contradistinctive character, offering Firdaus support and guidance, as well as being a figure that Firdaus associates with pain and repression. Firdaus remembers her mother’s eyes as being like “two rings of intense white” watching her and holding her up as she learned to walk. As Firdaus grows older, however, her mother’s role as her protector dissipates. She orders that a woman perform clitoridectomy on Firdaus and eventually dies, disappearing from her daughter’s life altogether.
Firdaus’s father is a poor laborer and is portrayed as a selfish, violent, and hypocritical man. While he is ostensibly devoted to Islam and the words of the Quran, Firdaus’s father does not follow his religion in practice and instead beats his wife, steals other farmers’ crops, and takes food from his starving children.
Firdaus meets Bayoumi, a local café owner, after escaping from her violent marriage with Sheikh Mahmoud. Bayoumi provides a respite from Firdaus’s distress at first, but as soon as Firdaus tries to assert herself, Bayoumi begins violently beating her and encourages his friends to rape her, effectively instituting Firdaus into another form of prostitution.
Firdaus meets Ibrahim while working as an office assistant and falls passionately in love with him. She is willing to give him her body, mind, and authentic self out of genuine love. Firdaus’s felicity, however, becomes short-lived when she discovers that Ibrahim is to marry the chairman’s daughter, in a strategic move motivated by his career. Ibrahim later admits to Firdaus that he used her for free sex, marking him as another male character whose primary drives are power and sexual satisfaction.