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ENGC51H3 Lecture Notes - Taha Hussein, Islamic Fundamentalism, Infitah

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Maria Assif

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Woman At Point Zero
The Novel in Focus
A. Plot Summary. The novel opens with the author's account of her efforts to obtain an interview
with a woman prisoner whose unique demeanor fascinates and troubles the prison doctor, the
warden, and eventually, the author. The woman, Firdaus, a prostitute, whose name means
'paradise" in Arabic is soon to be executed for murdering a man who had proclaimed himself her
pimp. The prison doctor and warden inform the unnamed author (El Saadawi) that Firdaus will not
speak to her; she has even refused to sign an appeal to the President that would commute her
death sentence to life imprisonment. The author is inexplicably but deeply troubled by Firdaus'
refusal to be interviewed. She is then abruptly summoned to Firdaus' cell where she listens to the
prisoner's tale. El Saadawi, as in her other autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works,
emphasizes the factual nature of the incident, despite the narrator's sensation of a dream-like
quality to her experience:
"But this was no dream. This was not air flowing into my ears. 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, 7)
Firdaus' tale explains her hatred of men, arising from the male oppression she has experienced
throughout her life. As a child, her father beat his wife, and neglected his female children, eating
when the rest of the family had no food. Without explanation, her clitoris was excised, according
to the custom known as female circumcision, and she was no longer allowed to roam the fields,
but expected to stay at home, cleaning and cooking. She was sexually molested by her uncle,
whom she nonetheless loved dearly. Eventually she followed her uncle to the city of Cairo where
he studied at the religious university, al-Azhar. El Saadawi refuses to use the rural traditions or
piety of her society as an explanation for male exploitation or devaluation of women, instead she
establishes the ways in which Firdaus experiences each layer of oppression from birth onward.
The young girl's self-esteem is already compromised as is evident in her distaste for her own
reflection in the mirror. Yet she loves her studies and her school in Cairo, her 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. To be more precise she resents having to provide for her. Firdaus is then
transferred to the boarding section of her school where her love of reading leads her to further
understand 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.
Her aunt and uncle view her as a useless burden after her graduation, and marry her off to the
elderly Sheikh Mahmoud. He has an oozing tumor on his chin, and is physically revolting to
Firdaus, but he insists on sex and scrutinizing her constantly. When he beats her with his shoe
and she runs back to her aunt and uncle for intercession, her aunt explains that "the precepts of
religion permitted such punishment." (Woman at Point Zero, 44) Sheikh Mahmoud, realizing that
Firdaus' family will not intercede as is possible in other affinal situations, beats her more severely
and she runs away into the streets. The owner of a coffee-house offers her temporary shelter, but
eventually abuses her as well, locking her in his flat, raping her, and sending in his cronies to
have intercourse with her.
She escapes, once again, into the streets, meeting a woman, Sharifa Salah el Dine who
surprises Firdaus by asking who has abused her, and installs her in Sharifa's luxurious apartment
on the Nile. Sharifa teaches Firdaus that in this world dominated by men, she must value herself,
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recognize her own beauty and culture. She receives male clients while Sharifa collects the
payments. Firdaus notes her own sensuality and enjoyment of other material pleasures that life
with Sharifa provides, but she cannot enjoy sex. One client, who senses that sex is physically
painful rather than pleasurable 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 their violent lovemaking. She flees, as has become a pattern, into the streets.
She encounters a policeman who threatens her with arrest if she will not have sex with him, and
then a stranger who rescues her from the streets, sleeps with her and leaves her ten pounds, the
first money she has earned for herself. Firdaus, while independently operating as a prostitute,
describes this period of her life as a time when she owned 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?" ( 71) It is incomprensible,
naturally, that men's reputation should suffer from extramarital sex, it is only women's reputations
that are tarnished. She seeks and eventually obtains a job at an industrial company. She lives
miserably on her poor wages, but refuses the attentions of men. Despite her efforts to attain
respectability, she eventually realizes that as a poorly paid employee, she has gained no social
status or respect, and that in fact, prostitution is less confining than the life of female employees
who are terrified of losing their jobs.
Firdaus falls in love a fellow worker, Ibrahim, who is the head of a revolutionary committee within
the company. She labors incessantly for the committee, as have women in so many political or
revolutionary organizations only to discover that her lover has become engaged to the company
chairman's daughter. This betrayal is overwhelming, as with the exception of her crush on Ms.
Iqbal, she had not previously loved another human being, and is numbed by an overwhelming
alienation. She picks up a man in the street, and reflects: "Revolutionary men with principles were
not really different from the rest. 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." (88)
Firdaus returns to prostitution. Her financial success brings her to the attention of a head of state,
whom she refuses, and men who wish to marry her. One, a dangerous pimp, Marzouk, threatens
her, takes over her business and uses his network of connections to his advantage. When she
attempts to leave, they argue. He slaps her, and Firdaus stabs him, discovering that her fear for
Marzouk, indeed her fear of all men and of the vicious nature of her society has vanished. She
walks again into the street, where a prince propositions her. She terrifies him when she
demonstrates her lack of fear, and he screams until the police arrive, whereupon they arrest her
and transport her to prison.
Firdaus declares to the narrator that while she does not fear death, she understands that she is
intolerable to her captors for her defiance threatens the social order. Her final words, before she
is marched out of the cell to her death are "I spit with ease on their lying faces and words, on their
lying newspapers." (103). The narrator is left with a sense of shame -- at her own accommodation
with the society that has so dishonorably dealt with Firdaus -- and ends the novel with the words
"And at that moment I realized that Firdaus had more courage than I." (108).
Rejecting Authoritarianism and Domination El Saadawi's views are Marxist, nationalist, Third
Worldist and Arabist, as well as feminist. The dynamic she constructs in Woman at Point Zero
between the empowered physician whose modern science is useless to cure the ills of Firdaus
and her society concerns women in the Arab world, and the universal exploitation of women and
reduction of their human value to their female bodies. On a third level, the novel gives voice to El
Saadawi's Marxist views concerning the exploitation of Egypt itself, doomed through the world
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