Woman at Point Zero

by Nawal El Saadawi

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Woman at Point Zero Themes

The central themes in Woman at Point Zero are abandonment and loss, self-worth and ownership, and gender and power.

  • Abandonment and loss: The female characters experience abandonment, loss, and rejection as a result of their treatment by men, who frequently choose power and sexual dominance over family bonds or responsibility.
  • Self-worth and ownership: There is a constant tension between the economic advantages that prostitution allows women and the negative impact prostitution has on their self-worth.
  • Gender and power: The only power Firdaus can experience is the power to utilize the sexual economy to her advantage and to tell her story.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Abandonment and Loss

At the beginning of the novel, the author, Nawal El Saadawi, experiences feelings of loss and rejection upon learning that Firdaus refuses to speak to her. Saadawi’s sense of inadequacy over Firdaus’s rejection leads her to view herself as “nothing but a small insect crawling upon the land amidst millions of other insects.” Her conception of self-worth is therefore directly associated with acceptance. When accepted by Firdaus, Saadawi’s whole attitude is transformed, and even the sky becomes a purer color. There are limits to Saadawi’s optimism, however, as once Firdaus is taken to be executed, the feeling of loss and dejection returns. Saadawi’s feelings of abandonment and loss are therefore closely tied to the similarities between herself and Firdaus, as they are two women whose voices are frequently censored and silenced by a patriarchal society.

Firdaus’s life is also dominated by the themes of abandonment and loss. She associates the time she spent with her childhood playmate Mohammadain with pleasure, as it marked the first and only time she would enjoy clitoral stimulation. When Firdaus is subjected to female genital mutilation, she experiences the loss of a physical part of her body, but also the loss of ownership of her sexuality and pleasure. The themes of loss and abandonment remain constantly intertwined, as Firdaus experiences the deaths of her parents and the rejection of her uncle, who chooses a new wife over Firdaus.

There is a constant tension between Firdaus’s desire to remain a prostitute for the economic security it offers and a desire to return to mainstream society. When Firdaus falls deeply in love with Ibrahim, a “revolutionary,” the value of an emotional connection takes precedence. When it is revealed that Ibrahim has become engaged to the chairman’s daughter, feelings associated with the abandonment, loss, and shame that Firdaus has experienced throughout her life resurface. In being in love, she had imagined a return to being human and engaging fully with her body and mind. When Firdaus was a prostitute, an “outer shell” and commitment to giving nothing beyond her body helped her to survive. When she is abandoned by Ibrahim, the possibility of love and trust in a greater state of humanity disappear alongside the loss of the relationship.

Self-Worth and Ownership

Firdaus’s self-worth and ownership of both body and self remain complex and often contradictory throughout the novel. Firdaus’s status as a prostitute is exemplary of this opposition. By choosing to become a prostitute and sell her body for men’s pleasure, Firdaus can be seen as partaking in the maintenance of the patriarchal status quo: a status quo that has degraded, abused, and violated Firdaus and other women in her society.

But Firdaus’s rebirth as a prostitute also enables her to utilize the sexual economy to her advantage and enjoy a sense of freedom, which she has connected with money since childhood. She remembers the elation she felt as a child when her father gave her a single piastre for cleaning up the animals during Eid. The sense of ownership over money is a feeling that endures throughout the novel and is closely connected to Firdaus’s sense of ownership over her body. When a client finally lets Firdaus set her own price, she realizes that she has the power to select and reject clients as she sees fit while enjoying a superior lifestyle to many women in Egyptian society.

The riches that she amasses through her profession allow her to enjoy material items, but they also contribute to her exploring her sense of self by developing her mind through her appreciation of and...

(This entire section contains 1071 words.)

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engagement with culture and politics. Even as Firdaus continues to develop her identity, her self-worth remains contingent on the perspective of others. After a friend and client, Di’aa, tells her that she is “not respectable,” the life that she has built is thrown into question, and a persistent sense of anxiety forces Firdaus to leave prostitution once more.

When Ibrahim breaks her heart, she again returns to prostitution. This time, however, when she encounters powerful men who threaten to remove her sexual and economic agency, Firdaus does not run away or tolerate the treatment, but instead murders her attacker in a move that she describes as an “act of heroism.” Although Firdaus’s murder of the man guarantees she will be executed, she at last asserts herself unapologetically, ensuring that her voice—and her story—cannot be silenced.

Gender and Power

Gender and power are closely tied to religion in the novel, with the behavior and actions of many of the male characters seeming to be at odds with their devotion to the Islamic faith. As a child, Firdaus observes that her father’s faith insists that stealing and beating your wife are sinful in the eyes of his religion, yet her father engages in these behaviors regardless. The men who go to the mosque are also indivisible from each other, repeating Allah’s holy words in unison, to the point that Firdaus cannot distinguish which man is her father. As an adult, this indivisibility endures, as Firdaus views men—from the ones whose images she spits on in the newspaper to the men that she imagines inflicting physical harm on—as the same.

The power that men such as Firdaus’s father and uncle exert over her as a child is even more evident in adulthood, with this power finding its expression in physical abuse, as well as in more subtle, emotionally manipulative ways. When Firdaus meets Bayoumi while on the run, he is initially charming and provides her with a sanctuary and sense of protection, but his behavior soon turns violent. Even Di’aa, a journalist and intellectual, displays hypocritical behavior, calling Firdaus’s profession “not respectable” before attempting to force himself on her sexually. The hypocrisy of the patriarchy remains one of the key barriers preventing women such as Firdaus from achieving sexual and intellectual freedom.

As Firdaus grows older, she comes to believe that, on some level, “All women are prostitutes” and in a position of sexual enslavement to men, with wives being the most enslaved of all people. While Firdaus is part of this sexual enslavement and is ultimately destroyed by powerful men, she can experience power in her “firm, confident steps on the pavement prov[ing] that I was nobody’s wife.”