WOMAN AT POINT ZERO: BOOK REVIEW
CW: sexual assault, violence, female genital mutilation
“I am saying that you are criminals, all of you: the fathers, the uncles, the husbands, the pimps, the lawyers, the doctors, the journalists, and all men of all professions”
It shook me to my core, stressing the inescapable reality of what life is for many women and femmes, inflaming within me an inexorable sense of rage. Woman At Point Zero, written by Egyptian author Nawal El Saadawi, is the most captivating and heart-wrenching text I have ever read. While published in 1975, decades ago, the novel resurfaces ceaseless issues. Readers transfix to its entire 114 pages: not a single page is skipped, not a single word is missed. Following the life of a woman hours before her death, Saadawi documents Firdaus’s story for her.
Nawal El Saadawi is a researcher interested in documenting incarcerated women while visiting Egypt’s infamously brutal Qanatir Prison. She is told about a woman held there named Firdaus, who is described as being unlike anyone else. The prison doctor tells Saadawi that the woman has too much of a “gentle” face to be a murderer. Unlike other incarcerated women there, Firdaus refuses to see or speak to anyone. However, Saadawi becomes an exception. When Saadawi walks into her cell, Firdaus reveals that she will be hanged that same night as her sentence. She will tell Saadawi her entire life story right before going on to face her inevitable death.
Beginning from her childhood, Firdaus points out the contradictions between her abusive father who constantly subjected her mother to violence, and the religiosity inherent to her family. She recounts meeting a boy in her youth and discovering the sensation of sexual pleasure. Shortly after, her mother sends a woman to mutilate her genitals. After her parents pass away, her uncle takes her into his home. Firdaus discovers that she has lost her sense of pleasure when her uncle assaults her. Tension builds with her uncle’s wife who arranges Firdaus a marriage to a man 40 years older than her; Firdaus does her best to succumb to this fate, but decides and manages to escape home. While seeking safety, she is constantly met with assault and violence by the men she comes across in her attempts to create better living conditions for herself. Eventually, she is introduced to prostitution: a means to survive but also the root of her suffering.
At one point, it seems like Firdaus is beginning to regain control of her bodily autonomy as she self-manages her encounters as a sex worker while also seeking out of the trade. She looks for a job and puts an end to her prostitution, but finds out quickly that she is unable to make enough income to support herself. Later, she also talks about falling in love with a man named Ibrahim but, when she discovers he only wanted her for sex, she returns to supporting herself through prostitution once more. Towards the end of her story, another abusive encounter finally gives Firdaus the reign as a murderess.
Her story is extremely dense. Firdaus’s experiences highlight misogyny and violence against women that often go without attention or discussion, especially in the Arab world. Her sexuality is present from the start of her youth, in every aspect of her identity. From pleasure to admiration, to love. One instance that stood out to me is when Firdaus claims to fall for a woman teacher at the boarding school she attends named Ms. Iqbal. However, Ms. Iqbal never allows Firdaus to become too attached to her. This is pivotal, as Firdaus also navigates relationships with the women around her. While Western frameworks of sexuality may not relate to her views and personal conceptions of love, understanding this particular issue can shed light on important events like the recent suicide of a Queer, Egyptian woman named Sarah Hegazi.
Sexuality and bodily autonomy is also a critical topic that exists several decades later. The female genital mutilation which Firdaus undergoes at a young age continues to be prominent in the Middle East and Africa, affecting over 100 million women in modern-day. Sexual assault and rape are also unfortunately not uncommon for women and gender non-conforming people all over the world. The realities of Firdaus cross continents and transcend time. These oppressive forces have not been eradicated— they continue to destabilize the ground beneath us.
The complexities of Firdaus’s life are best understood when reading her words. This is not just a book, it is a narrative brought to life. Firdaus releases her reality and Saadawi captures it through ink and paper. She shows us that there is a point where injustice becomes so overbearing that nothing else can allow her to overcome the atrocities she endures other than to commit murder.
“They said, ‘you are a savage and dangerous woman’. I am speaking the truth. And truth is savage and dangerous.”