For many years, under an almost global system of patriarchal power, women were not acknowledged as full citizens. They were deprived of suffrage, often silenced, and erased from history. Although women gradually found their voice and now confidently and deservingly stand on relatively equal ground with men, life in the past was very different. However, Woman at Point Zero (1975) presents the tale of a brave Egyptian woman who tried to overcome gender inequality throughout her tragic yet honorable life.
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Author Nawal El Saadawi, who includes herself in the book as a fictional psychiatrist, starts Woman at Point Zero by describing her experience visiting the female prisoners. She meets Firdaus, the female protagonist of the novel, the day before her scheduled death. Accordingly, the novel covers Firdaus’ story, revealing why she had no choice but to kill a man who tried to take over her life. Because the novel is written in an interview format in which the author herself appears as the main narrator in the story, the novel feels like non-fiction, reminding the readers that the issue is closely related to the real society.
The book illustrates the ups and downs of Firdaus’ life in a very powerful way by hinting at the horizontal relationships between characters in terms of money and sexual activity. This makes a vibrant impression, as if the book is looming over key moments of her life, generating strong emotions, including love and fear. With the description of growing up in a patriarchal society where she is genitally mutilated as a child, the novel continues to explicitly expose the unrighteous corners of society. As Firdaus shares her own personal story, it is easy to identify with Firdaus, who is in search for her own identity.
Interestingly, the story depicts different stages of a woman’s life by describing Firdaus’ rebirth every time she encounters frustration as a woman. Initially, she was an innocent little girl who believed the world would be easy and safe for her. However, later, in meeting a number of men who try to seduce her with sugarcoated words and transform her into a well-made marionette, Firdaus grows into a warrior who is ready to fight for her own life. Despite the hopeless situation, she continuously stands up for her freedoms, which is eventually achieved through death, a last voice against the unbalanced world.
Saadawi, a female activist, has long voiced her criticism towards male-dominated society in her books. With her description of Firdaus, who cannot even make a simple decision about whether she prefers an orange or a tangerine because she was never asked for her opinion, Saadawi aims to shock and illustrate how women are silenced and marginalized under patriarchal society.
While written many years ago, the world of the novel almost seems to be no different from society today. Although the situation has certainly improved, women are still in a transition period, struggling for their rights. As represented in the novel, it is hoped that women in real life can also overcome the image of fragility and create a new character of independence like Firdaus.