Sundus Sheikh/ Woman At Point Zero: A Revolt Against Male Tradition

Sundus Sheikh

Research Scholar (Ph. D)

Lovely Professional University,

Punjab, India

ABSTRACT:

Feminism has provided a new dimension to the world of women’s identity. It has changed the perception of life, but still there is something wrong with the society in the treatment of women. The women are prey to many abhorrent customs, traditional rigidities and vices. They also face illiteracy, feeble health, segregation in the dark and dingy rooms in the name of purdah, enforced marriages before marriageable age, undetermined widowhood, rigidity of fidelity and opposition of remarriage of widows turning many of them into prostitutes, curse of polygamy, degrading sacred rites of matrimony to a system of shameful traffic, putting to death to female children, commercialized marriage through dowry and above all, the complete denial of individuality of a woman. The present paper will explore the same kind of struggle faced by Firdaus and how she achieved emancipation in ‘Woman at Point Zero’ by Nawal El Saadawi. ‘Woman at Point Zero’ by Nawal El Saadawi shows the plight of women in Middle East and across the globe. Although the novel portrays the condition of women in Middle East but it is prevalent in almost all parts of the world. It shows the journey of a woman from her innocent childhood to a very scary present in which she finally becomes a murderer. All the men in her life just used her for sexual pleasure only. She craved all her life for love but always failed. Her only passion was education but this was also crushed away. She wanted to do something great in her life but could not do as she was living in a male oriented society and since childhood she was taught that a male is superior to a female. This paper will also explore how with the passage of time her mentality and maturity changes. With the passage of time, the girl who was so decent, tender-hearted, and innocent; had seen mirror for the first time in her uncle’ s place, and 10 pounds note after her marriage, turns into prostitute. The conditions in which Firdaus, the protagonist of the novel, is forced to opt for a profession which is not respectable in the society. She even tries to come out of this quagmire of prostitution in her life twice but sooner she realises that prostitution is much better than the position of a respectable wife who is no better than a whipped slave for her husband. She has been imprisoned for murder and is soon to be hanged, but she does not appeal for life-time imprisonment. She doesn’t want pardon for the crime which she didn’t commit. For her that murder was the murder of a criminal. She accepted the death as a source of emancipation from all the men who know only one thing, subjugation of female and to use them for the sake of sexual pleasure.

KEY WORDS: Female subjugation, struggle, prison, death sentence, emancipation.

 Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian writer by origin. She is the most celebrated writer of the Middle East. She is often called the ‘Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World’. She was born in Cairo, Egypt. She is not only a writer but also psychiatrist, socialist and an advocate of the women’s rights especially in the Middle East. She is also the most translated Egyptian writer and her works are translated in more than twelve languages. Her works focus on women especially female mutilation. She has always been a controversial writer and was even banished from the Egyptian society and as a result she had to publish her works from Lebanon. After writing her first non-fiction work “Women and Sex”, she was even expelled from her job. This work became very controversial, for being the part of Arab society and that too being a female, she was talking about women, sexuality and religion. This developed high anger among the religious and political authorities.

It clearly indicates that how a woman in Arab society has to struggle and suffer and there is no way to express her feelings, thoughts, and emotions especially through the medium of writing, because there will always be men as barrier to stop her way. In spite of such criticism and controversy, she didn’t stop her struggle. She founded Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) in 1981 which was the first legal independent women organisation in Egypt. This organisation was also banned after criticizing US involvement in the Gulf War. Saadawi’s life has always been in a great struggle and to talk about women and sexuality in Arab countries has always been a taboo but like a true feminist she is fighting against such evil by being a writer, journalist a spokesperson for Arab women.

Woman at Point Zero is about the struggle of the protagonist of the novel Firdaus. Woman at Point Zero is a piece of both fiction and nonfiction as Firdaus is the character based on the real person whom Saadawi met in Egypt. The story revolves around Firdaus, who, by profession, is a prostitute and is in jail awaiting for the death sentence for the crime of murder. She is not appealing for life time imprisonment instead of death sentence. As the writer was a psychiatrist and used to go to prison to study the psychology of women who committed crimes. The writer comes to know that Firdaus is very popular in the jail as she maintains complete discipline and she does not break any rule and is eagerly waiting for her death penalty. Firdaus didn’t even hire any advocate to fight for her. She rarely talked and was living in a state of complete silence. The writer tried to contact her but she always refused to talk to her. But one day she gets ready to talk to the writer and narrates her story. The day she agrees to talk to the writer is the night before she is to be executed.

“Let me speak. Do not interrupt me. I have no time to listen to you. They are coming to take me at six o’clock this evening. I shall no longer be here. Nor will I be in any place known to man. This journey to a place unknown to everybody on this earth fills me with pride. All my life I have been searching for something that would fill me with pride, make me feel superior to everyone else, including kings, princes and rulers.”(9)

She told the writer that she narrated her story on that day so that she should not try to save her from death. The question is why is she so desperate to die? What has made her life so miserable that she is accepting death with hands open and don’t want to live? The answer is same which is true for most of the women, and that is “Subjugation”, “Sexual assault”, “Harassment”,” Poverty” and so on.

Woman At Point Zero is her story from her childhood to adolescence when she becomes a prostitute and finally murderer. Since her childhood she had to suffer a lot in her life. She was not given the equal love and care which her brothers used to enjoy. Her father always used to keep an eye on her plate as how much she is going to eat. And since her childhood, she was a toy of sexual pleasure for two males. One was her friend who used to take her to fields and do sexual activity with her and the other was her uncle. Firdaus used to knead the dough and on doing so she used to take her dress to the knees to do it properly. And her uncle used to come from back keeping newspaper on his face as if he was reading the newspaper and used to do dirty things with her. And after doing that he would just go back to his place pretending again like reading newspaper and nothing happened. But Firdaus was very fond of him. He used to study in City and it was the dream of Firdaus to study and go with him to attend the university. She would always cry and beg him to take her with him to Cairo and he would always ask her that what would she do there? And she used to answer, “I will go to El Azhar and study like you.”(14)

In a way Education was the only dream which Firdaus had, but it was also taken away from her. Her parents wanted only her brother to study and not her. Why is this mentality everywhere? Why only a girl has to struggle for education mostly? Firdaus’s father was a real example of patriarchy. She subjugated his wife a lot. Firdaus had many brothers and sisters and when any of them used to die in summer out of diarrhoea, there were mixed and different feelings of his father towards her mother. If the child who dies is a girl, they would follow the same routine: the father will eat supper and after that mother will wash his feet and they will sleep. But if the child is a male, his father would beat his mother. Firdaus was living in a country where female subjugation was prevalent. She just wanted to run away from this life and get educated. This dream came true but only after the death of her mother. When her mother died, her uncle took her to Cairo with him and admitted her to a school. The innocence and ignorance of Firdaus can be derived from the fact that she saw her reflection for the first time in the mirror at her uncle’s place. Before coming to that place she had not even seen her own image and was far away from her own identity. It was a very strange feeling for her to see herself in a mirror for the first time. She says:

“I was frightened when I found myself looking at a little girl…there was no one else in it apart from me. I could not understand where this girl had sprung from, nor realise that she could only be me…Yet how could I be sure it was my face since I had not seen myself in a mirror before.”(19)

With all these new strange feelings, Firdaus was approaching her dream of education and wanted to achieve her ultimate dream of attending El Azhar University, but she was always told that El Azhar was an awesome place which was peopled only by men and his uncle was one of them as he was male. But somehow her primary school was over and she was awarded a primary school certificate. The next step was secondary school where she was admitted too. When her uncle got married, she had to leave her uncle’s house and shifted to a hostel. But still Firdaus was happy staying in the boarding section of school because she loved school. Her dreams were getting new heights every day. She wanted to do something big in her life. Sometimes she wanted to be doctor, or an engineer, or a lawyer, or a judge and even she dreamed of being a great leader or head of the state. She was well aware of the fact that she cannot become the head of the state, but she felt that she was not like other women, nor like the girls who were around her and talked either about love or about boys. She was a much focussed girl and finally her secondary school also ended and she came second in the school and seventh in the state. This was really a great achievement for her.

After completing her secondary school she came back to her uncle’s place. But there were his children and his wife. The myth that ‘Woman is another woman’s enemy’ came to be true in this case. Her own aunt didn’t want her to stay there. Initially, she was sent to the hostel because of her aunt. At that time she was studying so she could go to the hostel. Her aunt even crushed her dream of studying further. She made her uncle to stop her study further and fixed her marriage. The worst part was that her marriage was fixed by her aunt to a person who was almost double her age but as he was rich and old so her uncle could take lots of money from him for the marriage. Not only he was old but he also had deformity on his face. The question is why didn’t her aunt let her study? Why didn’t she love her like her mother? Her aunt just wanted to get rid of her as soon as possible. And she makes her uncle ready for the marriage in the name of money. She said that he can pay even 200 pounds for the marriage and this was how her uncle got bewitched and got ready for the marriage. “If he accepts to pay one hundred pounds that will be sufficient blessings from Allah. I will be able to pay my debts and buy some new underwears.”(38)

How can one sell a girl who is in a blood relation to them without caring about her? They didn’t even ask for her consent. They were well aware of the fact that her dream was to study and not to get married but without being least bothered they just got her married to a person who was of her father’s age. She was only 19 years and he was over 60. How can this marriage be compatible? How would she live with him? Was this her destiny or something decided by her so called relatives? Whatever the answer is, but her life and especially her dreams were at stake. And as this marriage was devoid of love and could not exist longer. Examples of domestic violence are prevalent. He used to beat her with or without reason. Once she was beaten very badly. When she went to her uncle’s house for help, her uncle told her that all the husbands beat their wives and made her quiet by telling her that virtuous woman should not complain about her husband. What type of reason is that? Why should wife take all beatings and sufferings from her husband smilingly without complaint? Why are women treated like savages or animals? They are made to work since morning till evening. Husbands make their wives life miserable. Firdaus, having no choice, came back to her husband to suffer again as she was being instructed that women are bound to suffer. But one day when her husband beat her with stick and the blood was flowing from her nose and ear, she left the house again. But this time she didn’t go to her uncle’s house. She was aware that she cannot get any help from there. So she just kept on walking on the road and crying with swollen eyes and a bruised face. But walking for a long time, she realised that she was hungry and thirsty. She stopped by a restaurant. There the owner Bayoumi gave her coffee and food without money. She told him that she had a secondary school certificate and she would like to do any work. But when she was all alone, he took her to his house. Firdaus was very innocent. Initially she related this man to her father and she went with him. There he gave her new clothes, food and shelter. But as he was a man, he was also using her for his sexual gratification and used to beat her also. The story didn’t end to his sexual gratification only, he used to bring other persons and would charge them for this. Firdaus was not able to differentiate as he used to bring them in dark with no light in the room. But one day she realised that it was not he. When she asked who he was. The man answered that it makes no difference. Now she realised that Bayoumi had made her a prostitute and was earning by selling her body every day. But she could not even run away from there, as she was locked in the room. But one day she managed to escape from there.

She had no place to go and just kept on walking alone on the street. She was educated, she could get a job. But the male dominated society never allowed her to chase her dreams. When she reached extreme physical exhaustion, she just sat down to take rest. There she met a woman Sharifa, who looked like an upper class woman. She was dressed beautifully and had put on good make-up. She started talking to her. She asked her “What did the son of the dog do to you?”(55). Firdaus got nervous and asked her who she was talking about. She replied that it can be any man. They all were same and wanted only one thing from woman. She explained her that a man does not know a woman’s value. And she made her to think that she can earn lots of money by keeping a price of her body. She took her to her place. As Firdaus was innocent and had no other place to go, she went with her without knowing the consequence of it. Sharifa’s place was very beautiful. She was living in a good and comfortable apartment. She gave her expensive clothes to wear. She gave her the best food and Firdaus got bewitched with all the luxuries. Then the men started coming and using her body. Firdaus was in her fantasy and did not realise that Sharifa had made her a high profile prostitute. She was not even giving her the money. She was just providing her clothes, make-up and food. Sharifa told her that she should focus on her work. Men came and when they were doing sexual activity with her, they didn’t talk to her and moreover she didn’t use to feel anything. But one day a man named Fawzy came. He told her that Sharifa was using her and whatever money she was getting by selling Firdaus’s body, she is not giving it to her which was the right of Firdaus. He asked her to go with him. But she didn’t go with her and rather went all alone without telling Sharifa. As it was midnight, a man started following her. Girls are never safe in the streets at night. He followed her and finally Sharifa got to know that it was a police man. She thought she is safe as he will not do anything to her but she was wrong. He asked her to come with her as he will pay her and if she refuses he will take her to police station. Police who is supposed to protect its citizens especially women, assaulted her and what he had promised to pay, didn’t pay and made her go. When she was walking in the street another man came, dragged her to the car and took her to his house. She was so helpless and tired that she could not even resist to his sexual activity. When he was done with her, she started walking and he called her and gave her 10 pounds. And the innocence of Firdaus can be drawn from the fact that for the first time she was seeing 10 pounds note. And then she just went to a restaurant and ordered a chicken for herself and ate it. This was for the first time that when she was eating nobody was staring her and she could eat peacefully. Then she realised that this money which is just a piece of paper can make much difference. From that day she became a high profile prostitute, deciding whom she will sleep with and whom to reject. She continued it for many years and now she was 25 years old, having her own apartment and a small library in it. Now, she had become self-dependant. She had a friend named Di’aa and one day he told her that her job was not worthy of respect. She was disrespecting herself by selling her body. All night she thought about it and came to the conclusion that she was not a respected woman. She decided to give up prostitution. “Come what may, I had to become a respectable woman.”(79). She had a secondary school certificate. Hence, she applied for a job and got appointed. She continued the job for 3 years and in these 3 years she suffered a lot. All the men in her office tried to seduce her and finally after 3 years she realised that as a prostitute, she was looked upon with more respect, and been valued more highly than all the female employees, and in that she included herself. “I came to realise that a female employee is more afraid of losing her job than a prostitute is of losing her life.”(82). Still she continued to do her job even though she didn’t like it. Then she came in contact with a man named Ibrahim. He fell in love with her and Firdaus also liked her. But she was well aware of her past so she told him everything without hiding anything. She told him everything right from her childhood to her being a prostitute. He assured her that he didn’t care about her past and still love and respect her. She was very happy that finally she will be happy and will become respectable woman by marrying and having a family. But destiny was not in her favour. Ibrahim cheated her in love and instead of her, he married the daughter of chairman to attain more success and achievement in life. Again Firdaus was alone. She realised that when she was a prostitute nobody could dare to break her heart. She lived more freely being a prostitute then being a respectable woman. Just to be loved, she gave everything as she states that she gave all her capabilities, efforts, feelings and deepest emotion in love but all in vain. She got nothing to be in love. So she decided that all this virtue and respect was an illusion and decided to go back to her previous life. As she says, “A successful prostitute was better than a misled saint.”(94). The society finally shifted her back to that quagmire, she had come out from. She thought that her life was an illusion and the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. In a way a respectable woman expects a lot from everything and lives always in a fear of being wrong all the time. But a prostitute expects only one thing and that is money which she gets from her customer and lives freely and can live life on her own. She has no responsibility and no one can hurt her. According to her, a prostitute is free from all the subjugation of men, marriage, and love or fear of getting divorced. She was absolutely distressed and was expecting nothing from the society and just wanted to be free. Finally she entered again in the filth of prostitution. After 4 years, she accidentally met Ibrahim and he wanted to come to her flat. She initially resisted and decided that she won’t sell her body to the man she loved but later agreed. When Ibrahim was going back after having sexual intercourse with her without paying, she called him and asked him to pay. He gave her 10 pounds but she told him that her price was 20 pounds and sometimes even more. Then she realised that Ibrahim had never loved her but used to visit her because he had no money to pay to any prostitute. Since that incident, Firdaus hated men. With the passing time, she became a very successful prostitute. Once a minister heard about her and called her to sleep with her. But she refused. He offered her a big sum of money but still she refused. He first tried to persuade her with love but when she refused, he threatened her to put her behind the bars but still she refused. Why was Firdaus resisting to such a powerful man? May be, this was her revenge towards men who always subjugated women in general and to her in particular. And finally she had to go to prison. But as she was successful and had money, she hired a big lawyer and shortly she was released. In her being a prostitute, she realized certain things like prostitution was invented by men and the lowest paid body was that of a wife. According to her all women were prostitute in one or the other way, “Because I was intelligent I preferred to be a free prostitute rather than an enslaved wife.”(99).

She was living a good, free and comfortable life. But as always her life has been full of struggle only, now also suddenly a man came to her and asked her to keep him her pimp. She refused the proposal but he didn’t stop it and kept on following her and made her realise that a pimp is very important for the life of a prostitute to have good contacts. He told her that there wasn’t any woman on the earth who can protect herself. Why is this mentality? Again she was made to realise that she needs a man in her life to get protected. He used her body, her money and almost everything which belonged to Firdaus. Later Firdaus realised that he was a very dangerous pimp who used to control a number of prostitutes and she was one of them. She has realised her power. Now again she was no longer free. She was not even the mistress of the house for which she paid. And finally she decides that she will leave this prostitution and will again do some job with her secondary school certificate. But he stopped her from going out of this. Firdaus was firm in her decision and wanted to leave it. They even had a fight and Firdaus in self-protection, killed him with a knife. And she left the house. Walking on the street, a car stopped and asks her to get in. It was the car of Arab Prince and offered her 3000 pounds and took her to his palace. After the physical gratification, Firdaus confessed her crime to him. She told him how she killed a man. At first he could not believe it but when Firdaus slapped him and told him that now he can realise that she was a murderer, the police was called and she was sent to jail not because she committed murder but because she killed a man. Now she had no fear of death. She was thinking that men are scared of her that she will kill them too. This thought filled her with happiness. The men who had used her all her life are finally scared from her. She said that she does not want pardon for the crime which was no crime for her. She was ready to accept death. It was her decision. She wanted to be free and it was only death that could take her far away and beyond the reach of cruel men who used women only for their body. Her hatred for men can be drawn from,

“But with each of men I ever knew, I always overcome by a strong desire to lift my arm high up over my head and bring my hand smashing down on his face.”(112)

Conclusion

To conclude, Women at Point Zero is indeed a great novel to understand the situation of women in the Middle East. Women no matter where they live, are subjugated and always live in support of a man. She since her childhood, is taught that man is supreme and she is here to obey her. There are large number of women who are bearing this pain and there are other women who fight against it. Firdaus was always taught that man is primary and female is secondary. But time made her realize that she is equally important. She killed a man and was embracing death because if she would appeal for life time imprisonment, again she has to appeal to men and would have to get dominated by them. And moreover the crime she committed was a no crime. She had just killed a criminal and so in her eyes she was no criminal. She considered the death as her emancipation and with this death she was going to a place which was beyond imagination and free from all the men and their ever growing lust for women.

 

                                                             Works cited

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Mitchell, Allston. “Nawal al Saadawi”. The Global Dispatches. May 16, 2010. Web. 15 January, 2015.

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Saadawi, Nawal El. Woman at Point Zero. New York: Zed Books Ltd, 1975. Print.

Siwar. “Women at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi”. So to Speak a Feministic Journal of Language and Art. November 7, 2011. Web. 20 January, 2015.

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