Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata
Published by Zed Books, 2007 (first published in 1975)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Set in the author’s home country of Egypt, and inspired in large part by the real life of a woman sentenced to death in Qanatir Prison whom she met during her research into female neurosis, Woman at Point Zero is a damning exploration of systemic misogyny.
The book continues to resonate strongly on a narrative and thematic level despite being written more than forty years ago. This is testament both to Saadawi’s perceptive writing, and her grasp of just how prevalent the patriarchy was (and continues to be). By having Firdaus narrate her own story to us, from early childhood to imprisonment, we see the relentless influence and abuse inflicted upon her by men throughout her life, both on an individual level and by the system at large.
From enforced genital mutilation to having her passion for education ignored, and from domestic violence to rape and exploitation; Firdaus certainly endures a lot of suffering. And yet, I thought Saadawi did a good job of allowing her heroine’s fierce spirit to consistently shine through, opting for a sense of tragic realism over needless gratuity.
Given that we know from the off the story will culminate in Firdaus being convicted and sentenced to death for killing a man, the author is able to explore the notion of culpability; asking us to consider at which point Firdaus crosses the line from victim to criminal, or if, indeed, she ever does. For a relatively brief and seemingly straightforward novel, there’s a nice amount of nuance along the way; from commentary on suppressed sexuality and corruption within religion, to the deception of power dynamics within the sex industry.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that Saadawi perpetuates the stereotype of Middle Eastern men being ruthlessly violent towards women, but given the narrative’s real-world basis, the timing of the book’s creation, the wider context of everything our heroine endures, and the thematic purpose of the novel (to show how women, particularly those who threaten the status quo, are browbeaten and silenced by society), I felt it was largely justified in this case.
It’s easy to see why Woman at Point Zero is considered something of a modern classic when it comes to feminist literature. It’s both impressive and upsetting how relevant much of its message continues to be, and I’m glad to have experienced its power for myself.
You can pick up a copy of Woman at Point Zero by clicking here.