Woman at Point Zero
Woman at Point Zero
by Nawal El Saadawi
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel based on El Saadawi’s interview with a woman incarcerated in Egypt’s Qanatir prison and executed circa 1973; published in Arabic (as Imra’ah ’Inda Nuqtat al-Sifr) in 1979, in English in 1983.
Awaiting execution, Firdaus, a prostitute who has murdered a pimp, relates her experiences as a woman in Egypt to a medical researcher/writer visiting the prison.
Nawal El Saadawi (also spelled Nawal Sa’-dawi) was born in the Egyptian village of Kafr Tahla in the Nile Delta province of Qalubiyya in 1931. Her high scores on national examinations permitted her to enter the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University during a time when the student population was still heavily male. She practiced both general medicine and psychiatry, became Director of Health Education for Egypt, edited the popular magazine Health, and, having written short stories as a university student, continued to produce fiction. In the 1970s El Saadawi’s writing shifted entirely to gender issues. She became known as Egypt’s most outspoken critic of the oppression of women and the first to write openly about such aspects of female sexuality as clitoridectomy, incest, and prostitution. Her career shifted from state-funded medical work into full-time research, writing, and activism, when, in reaction to her book Women and Sex (1972), she was fired as Director of Health Education and editor of Health. Her subsequent research on female neuroses led her to the women’s prison in Qanatir, where in 1973 she conducted an interview with the inmate on whom Woman at Point Zero is based.
Twentieth-century Egypt—stability and change
During El Saadawi’s early life, Egyptians were protesting the colonial presence in Egypt of the British, who would finally be forced out by a revolutionary government in 1952. Egypt had achieved a formal but nominal independence in 1922, under which King Fu’ad I and his son King Faruq ruled with a cabinet and parliament. Britain, however, retained enough influence to oppose cabinets or key politicians and thus dampen the growth of pluralism or effective democracy. The British had occupied Egypt since 1882, ruling it as if it were a colony, though officially it was not. They maintained a military presence there too, to protect their interest in cheap cotton and in revenues from the Suez Canal. Genuine independence and the total withdrawal of foreign forces was a continuous issue in Egypt until the rather surprising 1952 military coup by a group of young army officers, including Gamal Abdul Nasser (also spelled Jamal ʿAbd al-Nasir).
The revolution ignited by these officers changed the power structure of Egypt, displacing wealthy property owners as the nation’s most influential political force. When first established under President Muhammad Naguib, however, the new regime did not have preformulated platforms or a theoretical framework for future policies. The rebels shipped the king off to Europe; the elite who remained in Egypt would suffer—if not at first, then later under the new regime’s populist policies. Meanwhile, the peasants and urban poor appreciated the coup, although because of the inadequacy of reforms and policies like the decision to expand industry, their circumstances would be relieved only at the expense of growing debt and dependency for Egypt.
In 1953 the military officers banned all political parties and abolished the monarchy. The officers were eliminating potential rivals. Their one-time ally, President Naguib, was stripped of his powers, and Nasser became the voice of Egypt, with ʿAbd al-Hakim ’Amir in control of the army. Another former ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, a 25-year-old grassroots Islamist party, was repressed by the new regime after a Muslim Brother tried to assassinate Nasser in 1954. Nasser’s government also put down a worker’s strike, and moved against the Communist Party and other leftists.
In 1956 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in response to the withdrawal of an expected loan from the World Bank that year. The Egyptian masses applauded this seizure of Egypt’s largest source of revenue, which had been controlled by foreign powers since its construction under the local ruler, the khedive Isma’il, in the nineteenth century. The ensuing war in Suez, known in Egypt as the Tripartite Aggression, saw the Israelis, French, and British jointly attack Egypt to punish Nasser for the seizure. To Egyptians, the war indicated the hostile intentions of the West against their young government. And in fact the attack met with global condemnation.
Nasser moved further away from the West by announcing a Czech arms deal in September 1955, and by refusing that same year to sign the Washington-sponsored Baghdad pact (to protect Middle Eastern nations such as Iraq and Turkey from Soviet aggression). He would publicly claim a commitment to neutralism, to independence without reliance on the East or the West. But in fact the need to build up Egypt’s military base and the army’s dominance in politics resulted in Egypt’s purchasing weapons from the Eastern bloc and in Russian military advisors arriving to conduct business in Egypt.
Important in this period was Nasser’s enunciation of Arab unity. A short-lived (1958-61) union of Egypt and Syria resulted in the United Arab Republic, which would ultimately disintegrate. For a while, many in the region embraced this macro-philosophy, and it complicated the gender issue. If Arabs were to share a unified culture, how would it be possible to allow for the variations in attitudes and practices concerning women in different lands? In some Arab societies, arranged marriages or marriages to first cousins were still preferred, strict separation of the sexes was observed, and women’s ability to challenge spousal abuse was extremely limited; in other Arab societies women were moving into the workforce, advancing through education, and challenging some of the legal restrictions imposed on them.
After the short-lived experiment in Arab unity came the defeat of the Arab states in the 1967 so-called Six Day War with Israel. Israel’s preemptive strike on June 5, 1967, destroyed much of the Egyptian air force parked on the airfield. Israel emerged victorious not only because of the strike but also, among other factors, because of poor training of Egyptian troops, an inadequate budget, and Nasser’s refusal to withdraw forces from Yemen. The mix led to Israeli victory in the Sinai, and Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The loss was enormous. Arab intellectuals termed the 1967 war the nakba—the disaster, a political and cultural crisis, a nadir from which they could descend no further. Suddenly all the slogans in favor of Arab socialism and unity seemed empty, especially the one that promised an eventual reclamation of Palestine. Instead Egypt had experienced a further defeat. There was, however, no vibrant ideology to step into the place of Arab socialism and unity.
The decade following Nasser’s death in 1970 brought further disintegration in political and social values. A new economic open-door policy in 1972, the infitah, led to the expulsion of Soviet advisors, and the expectation on the part of international aid agencies that Egypt would pursue more “rational” economic policies—that is, embark on privatization, or the transformation of public enterprises into private ones. The policy, involving invitations for Western investment in Egypt, troubled many leftists. Their country had for some years followed a path of neutral selfsufficiency. If the public sector were to be gradually privatized, what would happen to the previously proclaimed commitment to the common citizens?
El Saadawi forged her resistance to oppression, whether it related to gender, or more broadly to authoritarianism, during these decades. The Egyptian public had been regaled with promises that the demise of the ancient regime, and the withdrawal of the lingering British, would bring a new age. Yet women especially did not experience a newly tolerant, materially plentiful existence. Instead they experienced a competition for resources that repeatedly favored men—father over wife and children, uncle over niece, and male employers over female workers, to name a few examples from the novel
Women in modern Egyptian history
Urban elite women followed a fairly strict code of sexual segregation in the Ottoman Empire of the nineteenth century. In Egypt many upper-class women lived within the boundaries of the harem system, which secluded them from the general male public. Debate stirred here about the need for female education within a modernizing society, about the abuses of polygamy, and about the veiling of women’s faces. A woman’s honor was theoretically the property of her menfolk, so a high value accrued to virginity. Meanwhile, the custom of paying a brideprice, the amount given to a girl’s parents to formalize a union, was sanctioned by religion and custom, which meant that poor women could be “sold.” (Wealthy women had more freedom, because they retained control of their own income.)
Women in the countryside were not subject to the Ottoman face veil or practices of female seclusion because their labor was necessary for family subsistence. If girls survived their early childhood, they were circumcised at age six or seven to weaken their sexual urge and ensure virginity. The painful, unsanitary practice involved removing all or part of the clitoris, which resulted in medical and psychological complications. A movement against female circumcision began in the 1920s and ’30s, but surveys show that the practice continues even today in countryside and city, among Muslims and Christians.
As Egyptian society progressed from its status under King Faruq to the revolutionary era, to its reorientation to the West under President Anwar Sadat, women and popular ideas about their roles changed. The harem system had declined earlier in the century, and elite women had gained some mobility in the public sphere. By mid-century they enjoyed rights to education and entry into various professions. Discussion about sexual issues would prove more problematic than those about women’s rights to study or work, whether such debate touched on female circumcision or the expectation that women would maintain their virginity until marriage or face death at the hands of male relatives. In any case, the condition of women in general changed very slowly, with the lives of peasant women and those of the urban lower class remaining far less altered than among the wealthier. Even elite and middle-class women faced discrimination—although in their case it was alleviated by their financial status and access to legal remedies.
A number of women refused to suffer such discrimination, which gave rise to a generation of female activists who were anything but passive and meek. In the late 1940s and ’50s, a second generation of feminists met, wrote, and fought for social reforms. They faced a formidable task. Many in the Arab world still saw monogamous marriage for women, followed by motherhood, to be a religiously sanctioned structure. Certainly it was not something to be abandoned for the free dating and rising divorce rate of the West. Besides, Westerners had imposed their ideas and customs on Egypt from 1882 to 1952. Feminism, said opponents, could be (and was) seen as a weapon directed at Arab-Muslim culture itself.
Women’s rights and the Personal Status Code
Since girls married early, it was difficult, especially in past decades, to convince peasant families that there was merit in educating female children. Slowly the outlook changed. In Woman at Point Zero, El Saadawi’s protagonist, Firdaus, takes advantage of an opportunity to study in Cairo. She also works there, in a factory, where she falls in love with the head of a revolutionary committee. Though a rebel, he proves to be as exploitative as every other male with whom she interacts—from her uncle with his rural roots; to her aged husband, who resents every crumb she eats; to the pimp who usurps her independence as an enterprising prostitute.
The novel mocks the idealism of the 1970s, which failed to address the plight of women. All over Egypt they suffered exploitation, even as the government was touting improved conditions for everyone. When a woman obeyed society’s rules, as Firdaus does during her days as an office worker, she suffered inadequate pay. Even in revolutionary circles—women often served as the support base for political parties and revolutionary committees—they failed to receive credit equal to men. At home, domestic violence was rampant in Egyptian society, although it could be mitigated if a women had good relations with her own family and they elected to serve as mediators. Women’s rights to divorce, child custody, and relief from an abusive spouse were limited because of prevailing interpretations of shari’ah, Islamic law.
Shari’ah formed the basis of the Personal Status Code, the body of law that governed issues of importance to women. Polygamy was permissible for men; they did not have to notify their wives of a divorce or a second marriage; women could not obtain alimony from a divorced husband, though they were entitled to “upkeep” and child support; an outdated custom called bayt alta’ah (house of obedience) allowed a man to confine his wife to her home prior to divorce; and a woman had to give up custody of her children at specified ages or if she remarried. In 1979 Anwar Sadat’s regime enacted important reforms in these policies, but extralegally, without going through set procedure. The reforms were challenged and amended in 1985 to contain less liberal provisions, but in 2000 a new law making divorce easier for women and somewhat harder for men was passed.
Migration and prostitution
The protagonist of Woman at Point Zero migrates from the countryside to the city. The problems resulting from her migration reflect realities of mid-twentieth century Egypt, when migrants to Cairo crowded into areas in which they could ill afford to live, only to find little infrastructure and high unemployment in the city.
In other works of Egyptian literature, the countryside is represented as the site of morality and honesty while the city is portrayed as alienating and corrupting. El Saadawi paints a more nuanced portrait. The countryside is not wholly positive—the female protagonist grows up and survives in rural Egypt through luck while siblings die. And the city is not wholly evil; while it represents the loss of her immediate family and is the center of multiple forms of exploitation, it also offers Firdaus the opportunity to obtain an education.
Faced with high unemployment and discrimination in the city, some women chose to become prostitutes, as Firdaus does in Woman at Point Zero. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Egypt saw a multiethnic trade in women, ranging from white foreigners, to Africans, to child prostitutes. Debate raged over the legal means of allowing, controlling, or attempting to curtail the volume of prostitution, which increased at pivotal times, as in World War II, when large numbers of foreign troops, committed to action in the Egyptian desert, retreated to Cairo for rest and recreation.
Of course, women elected to become prostitutes for various reasons. In or out of the trade, society regarded women as objects to serve men. The novel contrasts the protagonist’s choice—to
WOMEN AND FEMINISM IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY EGYPT
|1899:||Qasim Amin’s book The Liberation of Women (Tahrir al-Mar’ah) ignites public debate.|
|1909:||Bahitha al-Bad’iyya (the pen name of Malak Hifni Nas-sif) publishes al-Nisa’iyat, an anthology of speeches and essays on women,|
|1919:||Veiled women participate in nationalist demonstrations and protests against the British.|
|1920:||Nabawiyya Musa publishes al-Mar’ah wa at-Amal (Women and Work).|
|1922:||Egypt is granted nominal independence by Great Britain.|
|1923:||Founding of the Egyptian Feminist Union; Huda Sha’arawi and Saiza Nabarawi, feminist nationalists, cast off their face veils in public.|
|1944:||The Egyptian Feminist Union hosts the Arab Feminist Conference.|
|1945:||Creation of the Arab Feminist Union.|
|1949:||Inji Aflatun, painter and writer, publishes Nahnu al-Nisa. al-Misriyyat (We Egyptian Women), which analyzes women’s oppression.|
|1952:||Revolution displaces King Faruq,|
|1954:||Amina Sa’id, journalist and feminist, founds Hawwa, the first contemporary popular magazine to cater to a broad-based female audience; Durriya Shafiq, philosopher, writer, and founder of the Bint al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile) Union, goes on a hunger strike to protest women’s lack of political rights.|
|1956:||Egyptian women achieve suffrage; the Suez War erupts.|
|1959:||Nawal El Saadawi writes Memoirs of a Female Physician.|
|1973:||El Saadawi begins her research at Qanatir prison.|
|1974:||Laws introduced for the economic opening of Egypt.|
|1979:||Anwar Sadat’s regime enacts reforms of the laws of Personal Status.|
|1985:||Personal Status reforms are amended to reduce freedoms.|
|2000:||New divorce law allowing female-initiated divorce on any grounds is passed.|
be a prostitute—with the role society imposes on her, of subservient, respectable wife. Her uncle and his wife are solely concerned with finding a husband who will provide her material support. They search for the standard arrangement, in which a wife trades sexual favors for material support of herself and her offspring. In some ways the prostitute is less oppressed than such a wife—an important point to keep in mind when considering Firdaus’s actions in Woman at Point Zero. Also crucial is the knowledge that neither Islamic mores nor forces of progress in the 1970s had much impact on prostitution in Egyptian society.
Woman at Point Zero opens with the female narrator’s account of her efforts to obtain an interview with a female prisoner whose unique demeanor fascinates and troubles the prison doctor, the warden, and eventually, the narrator too. The woman, Firdaus (her name means “paradise” in Arabic), is a prostitute who will soon to be executed for murdering a man who proclaimed himself her pimp. The prison doctor and warden inform the unnamed narrator that Firdaus refuses to speak to her; she has even refused to sign an appeal to the president that would commute her death sentence to life imprisonment. The narrator feels deeply troubled by Firdaus’s refusal to be interviewed, but suddenly the prisoner does an about-face. She summons the narrator to her cell, then tells her story. There is a dreamlike quality to the experience, but the narrator reminds us of its factual basis nevertheless:
But this was no dream.... The woman sitting on the ground in front of me was a real woman, and the voice filling my ears with its sound, echoing in a cell where the window and door were tightly shut, could only be her voice, the voice of Firdaus.
(El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero, p. 7)
Firdaus’s tale attributes her hatred of men to a lifetime of male oppression. As a child, she experiences a father who beats his wife and neglects his female children, eating when the rest of the family has no food. Without explanation, Firdaus’s clitoris is excised, according to the African custom known as female circumcision. Afterward she may no longer roam the fields but must stay home to clean and cook. She is sexually molested by her uncle, whom she nonetheless loves dearly. Firdaus follows him to Cairo, where she attends school.
By this time, as shown by her distaste for her own reflection in the mirror, Firdaus’s self-esteem is compromised. She nevertheless loves her studies and her school in Cairo, and is grateful for the opportunity to escape the animalistic destiny she witnessed in the countryside. She keeps house for her uncle, who continues to molest her while serving as her protector, until he marries a woman who resents Firdaus, or, more exactly, resents having to provide for the young woman. Firdaus is transferred to the boarding section of her school, where her passion for reading increases her understanding of the domination of men throughout history. She falls in love with a sympathetic teacher, Ms. Iqbal, the only adult who has shown any unblemished concern for her.
Viewing Firdaus as a useless burden after her graduation, her aunt and uncle marry her off to the elderly Sheikh (or Shaykh) Mahmoud who insists on having sex with her and on scrutinizing her constantly. Firdaus finds him physically revolting—he has an oozing tumor on his chin. When he beats her with his shoe, she runs back to her uncle and aunt, but the aunt dismisses her, stating that “the precepts of religion permitted such punishment” (Woman at Point Zero, p. 44). Realizing that her family will not intercede on her behalf, Sheikh Mahmoud beats her more severely, whereupon she runs away. The owner of a coffeehouse offers her temporary shelter, then abuses her too, locking her in his flat, raping her, and sending in his cronies to have intercourse with her.
Once again Firdaus escapes into the streets, and meets a woman, Sharifa Salah el Dine. After surprising Firdaus by asking her who has abused her, the strange woman installs her in her own luxurious apartment on the Nile River. Sharifa teaches Firdaus that in this world dominated by men, she must value herself, must acknowledge her own beauty and degree of education. Serving as a madam, Sharifa collects payments while Firdaus receives male clients. Firdaus acknowledges her own sensuality and enjoyment of material pleasures when living with Sharifa, but cannot enjoy sexual relations. One client, who senses that sex is physically painful to her, vows that he will take her away from Sharifa. Firdaus overhears an argument between this man, a former lover of Sharifa’s, and her mistress, followed by violent lovemaking. As has become her pattern, she flees into the streets.
Firdaus next encounters a policeman who threatens her with arrest if she will not have sex with him, and then a stranger rescues her from the streets, sleeps with her, and leaves her ten pounds, the first money she has earned for herself. She now operates independently as a prostitute, describing this period of her life as a time when she owns her own body. Her self-content is ruined when a client speaks of her lack of respectability. Firdaus responds: “My work is not worthy of respect. Why then do you join in it with me?” (Woman at Point Zero, p. 71). In pursuit of respectability, Firdaus seeks and eventually obtains a job at an industrial company. She lives miserably on her poor wages but refuses the attentions of men. Eventually Firdaus recognizes that, as a poorly paid employee, she has gained no respect or social status; prostitution is less confining to her than the life of a female employee who is terrified of losing her job.
Firdaus falls in love with a fellow worker, Ibrahim, who is head of a revolutionary committee within the company. She labors incessantly for the committee, only to discover that her lover has become engaged to the company chairman’s daughter. Ibrahim’s betrayal overwhelms her. With the exception of her crush on Ms. Iqbal, she had not previously loved another human being. Numb with alienation and cynicism, Firdaus picks up a man in the street. “Revolutionary men with principles were not really different from the rest,” she reflects. “They used their cleverness to get, in return for principles, what other men buy with their money. Revolution for them is like sex for us. Something to be abused. Something to be sold” (Woman at Point Zero, p. 88).
And so Firdaus returns to prostitution. Her financial success brings her to the attention of a head of state and men who wish to marry her. One, a dangerous pimp, Marzouk, seizes control of her business. When she attempts to leave, they argue. He slaps her, and Firdaus stabs him, discovering that her fear of Marzouk, indeed her fear of all men and of the vicious nature of her society, has vanished. She walks again into the street, where she encounters a prince who is her client. She terrifies him by speaking of her ability to kill; he screams until the police arrive. They arrest her and send her to prison.
Firdaus declares to the narrator that she does not fear death and understands that she is intolerable to her captors because her defiance threatens the social order. She utters a final condemnation before she is marched out of the cell to die: “I spit with ease on their lying faces and words, on their lying newspapers” (Woman at Point Zero, p. 103). The narrator leaves with a sense of shame—at her own accommodation to the society that has so dishonorably dealt with Firdaus—and closes with the words: “And at that moment I realized that Firdaus had more courage than I” (Woman at Point Zero, p. 108).
The exploited female
At the heart of Woman at Point Zero is the feminist critique of Firdaus’s world. The power of Firdaus’s testimony is twofold. First there are her gendered experiences, from circumcision to abuse, beating, and rape, to her final confrontation with Marzouk, who divides the world into masters and slaves, implying that a woman can be only a slave. Her murder of him might be viewed as a rejection of the role to which he consigns her. Secondly the power of this portrait of one woman’s oppression is due to its larger historical validity. Of course, not all mid-to-late twentieth century women sold their bodies to unknown men; some otherwise prostituted themselves to the demands of their families, and many secretly suffered sexual abuse.
Firdaus learns that the gradations of social class and increasing modernization do not seem to affect the treatment of women. She discovers this initially through historical works, and later in her own lived experiences.
I preferred books about rulers. I read about a ruler whose female servants and concubines were as numerous as his army and another whose only interests in life were wine, women, and whipping his slaves. A third cared little for women, but enjoyed wars, killing, and torturing men.... There was also a ruler so obsessed with plots and conspiracies that he spent all his time distorting the facts of history and trying to fool his people.
I discovered that all these rulers were men. What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power. They were men who sowed corruption on the earth, and plundered their peoples, men endowed with loud voices, a capacity for persuasion, for choosing sweet words and shooting poisoned arrows. Thus, the truth about them was revealed only after their death, and as a result I discovered that history tended to repeat itself with a foolish obstinacy.
(Woman at Point Zero, pp. 26-27)
For Firdaus, the rulers of her own era are no better—nor are the ordinary men whom she encounters in daily life. Westerners frequently attribute women’s difficulties in the Arab world to sexist ideas inherent in the religion of Islam, but these views are often based on uninformed ideas about the religion. Likewise, some critics of El Saadawi incorrectly regard her as attacking Islam in her writing. In fact, her views on the causes of patriarchal practices and gender biases in Egypt are nuanced. While she does not exonerate Muslims from suppressing or mistreating women, neither does she consider Islam the root of the problem. Instead she sees several factors as having contributed to sexism—among them, pre-existing customs (from Arab, Nile Valley, or other cultures), perversion of Islamic intents, and the struggling economy. She nevertheless attacks practices adopted by Muslims, such as stricter veiling of women from society, and the extraordinary value attached to virginity. She also opposes female circumcision, arguing that it cannot be justified as an Islamic custom, since Muhammad knew of it but did not recommend the practice.
Sources and literary context
The Azhar, the center of Islamic learning that draws Firdaus and
FROM POLITICS TO ALIENATION IN LITERATURE
Nasser’s regime refrained from much discussion of the situation of women in Egypt, fearing religious conservative reaction. On one hand, the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, one-time ally of the officers who routed the British, had championed modest dress for women but opposed extending women the vote (which they gained in 1956). On the other hand, Nasser’s government wanted to allow for gradual change in women’s lives through policies that supported the nationalization of education and health and that heightened productivity, but Nasser did not want to rock the boat with any dramatic changes or open discussions of gender issues. After a Muslim Brother’s attempt to assassinate Nasser in 1954, the president cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. The crackdown stymied discussion that might otherwise have occurred about the contradiction between Nasser’s social policies and current Islamic practices in Egypt. With Nasser’s regime came anti-imperialist policies, which were applauded, particularly by the masses, but also the growth of a national bureaucracy as well as repressive measures used to monitor and silence the regime’s opponents. Both conditions brought criticism from intellectuals and writers, who suffered censorship and imprisonment. Along with sexual oppression, their suffering is the basis for the extreme alienation from society in El Saadawi’s novel
her uncle to Cairo, actually exists. Otherwise the novel’s only direct historical allusions are those concerning the socialization of factories and large industries under President Gamal Abd al-Nasser, and El Saadawi’s own interview with the protagonist in 1973, which constitutes the framework for the novel.
El Saadawi has explained in an interview that she added only 10 to 20 percent of her own invention to the actual prisoner’s story (El Saadawi in Badran and Cooke, p. 402). In 1973, she was collecting case studies in the Qanatir prison as well as local hospitals and clinics, when she met and interviewed the prisoner who served as the model for Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero.
El Saadawi had close contact with imprisonment herself. Many of her associates served time for their political views, her husband served a 13-year sentence, and she served a 4-year prison sentence of her own. Since she was jailed for her ideological views and political affiliations, she could relate firsthand to her protagonist’s position as a woman punished for refusing to abide by society’s rules. El Saadawi’s novel is part of an ongoing movement of Egyptian women’s writing. A number of her contemporaries have also written about women’s erotic and psychological experiences, including, for example, the Egyptian novelist Alifa Rifaat (Distant View of a Minaret). El Saadawi has at the same time been part of a broader literary tradition, that of social critique in North Africa and the Middle East. Beyond feminist concerns, her novel has been read as a critique of Egypt’s positioning of itself in global affairs.
1970s Egypt—spectrum of events
The most important historical events taking place while El Saadawi was writing the novel were the politics of infitah (economic opening to the West) in Egypt; the development of Islamic fundamentalism there; and Egypt’s increasing economic dependence on international aid agencies and (until 1979) on income from the Gulf states. Some of this income came through governmental aid, but a portion came from tourist revenues. Tensions arose between male tourists from the Gulf and Egyptians because of the association of prostitution and other illegal vices with the entertainment businesses. Tales abounded of Gulf visitors hunting for Egyptian prostitutes, and seeking out little girls to buy from their families.
Feminism in the 1970s
Feminists scored advancements in Egypt from the late 1950s to the 1970s. In 1957 two women won election to the People’s Assembly, and from the 1960s to 1979 about a dozen women were either elected or appointed to Parliament. An increasing number of women entered the labor force. Passed in 1959, Law No. 91 prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex; other laws mandated benefits such as maternity leave.
The decade of the 1970s brought advances for women, albeit sometimes cosmetic or temporary, as in the 1979 Personal Status Code reforms. Among the reforms, for example, was a divorced woman’s right to retain the family home—an important advance, since previously women lost their residence, and if their families did not want them to return home, often reconciled with objectionable spouses rather than divorce. Women seemed to be gaining ground but a major step backward, from their point of view, was in the offing.
With the growth of Islam in Egypt and other Arab states came what liberal feminists saw as setbacks for women. These setbacks were observable in increased preference for Islamic dress (including long loose gowns and the hijab, a covering for the hair) rather than Western fashions, and in the separation of the sexes in local Islamist groups. It was in the 1970s that radical Islamist groups in Egypt gained supporters and overtly opposed the government, which resulted in mass arrests. The groups opposed secular government (the separation of religion and state) in general, and were extremely critical of Anwar Sadat for his enactment, among other things, of the Personal Status reforms. El Saadawi and other feminists were very active during this time in establishing networks to push forward such reforms for women. But opposing Islamist groups mounted a strong backlash against the reforms that would lead to their being reduced.
As the novel was being written, Nawal El Saadawi had assumed the role of feminist activist in a period characterized by an abrupt turning away from the political, social, and economic goals of the earlier decade. Firdaus claims at the end of the novel, “It is my truth that frightens them” (Woman at Point Zero, p. 102). El Saadawi seems to be instilling the urgency of Firdaus’s statement with her own newfound calling, with the warning tone of a prophet.
Banned in Egypt, a number of El Saadawi’s works, including Woman at Point Zero, were published in Beirut, Lebanon. Her nonfiction had previously attracted an Arab readership and alerted conservatives to the polemics in her work. Woman at Point Zero was acclaimed by the Arabic-reading audience and by feminists outside the Arab world for its courage, the power of its prose, and its ideological message. Those who objected to El Saadawi’s earlier work criticized the novel from a philosophical perspective, judging its feminist message too strident. Later, as intellectuals moved away from the socialist ideals of the Nasser era, they objected to the work from a literary perspective as well, finding fault with the way it incorporates social critique into fiction at a time when symbolic work was becoming more prevalent and other authors of the region were writing more indirectly to avoid censorship. In the eyes of these critics, El Saadawi’s feminist zeal was too overwhelming; she subordinated character, they thought, and therefore language and writing structure, to the “political” novel.
MORE THAN A NOVEL?
Egypt has been frequently represented in sculpture, cartoons, and paintings of the twentieth century as a woman confronting the more sophisticated male powers of the world. Indeed, one reading of Woman at Point Zero interprets the work as an allegory that expresses El Sadaawi’s Marxist views about Egypt, a land doomed by the world economic system to prostitute itself to outside interests. Such a reading suggests that, had Egypt revolted against Western companies and against contemporary privatization campaigns, the rulers and jailers in modern Egyptian society would have been toppled. Also suggested by such a reading is that Egyptians would have been well advised to resist the corruption prompted by the influential Gulf tourists. Cairo became the playground for vacationing Saudis, Kuwaitis, and others. For their pleasure, nightclubs and casinos lined the long avenue from Cairo University to the pyramids. Men from the Gulf were infamous for harassing Egyptian women and for finding and purchasing very young girls as brides. El Saadawi addresses the issue when Firdaus picks up a “prince” in Woman at Point Zero.
Woman at Point Zero has been praised for the same features for which it is criticized. Reviewers compliment its brave discussion of female circumcision and discrimination in Egypt. Fedwa Malti-Douglas locates El Saadawi’s work within a tradition that uses the female voice to subvert the rule of patriarchy and its accounting of events. In a more mixed review, Wen-Chin Ouyang recognizes both the artfulness and danger of such a novel: “El Saadawi has a flair for melodrama and mystery. She skillfully tricks us into the world she creates … [but] the characters remain symbols and never quite come to life” (Ouyang, pp. 458-59). The reviewer cautions that those who are unfamiliar with the Arabic novel can be led astray by El Saadawi’s insistence that her tales are real. She exaggerates, says Ouyang, the portrayal of women as “hopeless, helpless victims” and of men as evil “control freaks,” as one would expect of an Arab “novel of ideas,” in which the message is the ultimate protagonist and in which women, especially
EL SAADAWI’S CAREER WHEN THE NOVEL WAS WRITTEN
In addition to her writing, El Saadawi became an advisor on women’s programs and then moved to the Lebanese office of the United Nations in 1979 to head women’s programs in the region. In 1982 she and a group of Arab women from various countries established the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association. The group organized a conference of its own, sent a delegation to the United Nation’s International Conference on Women, and participated in debate and activism in Egypt concerning the proposed amendments of the laws of Personal Status. As an undeclared war between Islamist militants and the government escalated in the late 1980s and afterwards, El Saadawi’s organization was declared illegal and shut down. El Saadawi herself received threats and had to hire an armed guard at her residence. She continued, however, to write. Although censorship of texts on sexual issues has been increasing, her work continues to be read widely in Arabic and in translation.
prostitutes, are often symbols of their countries or nations (Ouyang, p. 459). Nevertheless, Ouyang commends El Saadawi for drawing readers in with her “deft use of the first-person narrative,” which compels them to live the experience of her female protagonist.
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