Woman At Point Zero written by Nawal El Saadawi is the story of Firdaus. Firdaus. That name will stick with you long after you’ve turned the last page of the book. Firdaus herself tells us her story from the floor of her jail cell in Cairo as she awaits execution the following day for murder no less. The murder of a pimp. We listen in as she tells a psychiatrist her intensely captivating and relatable story. Fear not, there will be no spoilers, just an overview of the book’s overarching theme and progression. The book covers a broad range of topics including patriarchy, romance, religion, economic systems, marriage, prostitution, sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, government and the elite to name a few.
Firdaus who is fearless in the face of her impending death starts her story right from the beginning, in a small village, living in poverty. They were so poor that sometimes they would go to bed hungry. Where they is her and her mother because her father always ate. Always. Never once went to bed hungry. She tells us about her days as a schoolgirl and how she eventually ended up on the streets earning a living as a prostitute. She shares her doubts and internal dissonance about the ethics and mortality of her ‘chosen’ profession if one can even choose such a thing. She takes us on a journey of how her life ended up as it did, giving us her critique of everything from politics to sex along the way.
Her story is a searing indictment on patriarchal society and the exploitative financial system. It exposes the ways in which women are vulnerable to the violence of men right from their homes to the streets and even when they think they are safe and independent, they really are not. Her story is about all the ways in which society conspires to harm and dominate women while giving men what amounts to a free pass to act as they wish. A society that values all things masculine and despises the feminine.
Her story reveals all the ways in which the economic system forces people into making ‘decisions’ that they wouldn’t otherwise make. It reveals that no one is free in this system and women are the least free of them all. We see Firdaus fearlessly embrace death as the only way she can finally be free of all the shackles society has conspired to keep her chained in.
It is a short story but is not an easy read. It is particularly harder for women who cannot escape seeing themselves in Firdaus and even her mother. The book is full of violence and not just when Firdaus kills a pimp which lands her in her predicament. Her entire world and ours is steeped in violence. At home, her father is violent. Poverty is violent. The streets are violent. The marriages are violent. Female genital mutilation is violent. The men are violent. The elite are violent. The politicians are violent. There is violence everywhere and one does not have to search keenly to see all the parallels of violence in our society.
It is a wonderful read. Nawal el Saadawi, a trained doctor is a master storyteller whose feminist and socialist worldview comes through in this great tale. Firdaus who has been hardened by life, tells it as she sees it, mincing no words which is refreshing. Her anger about it all is palpable. It helps that the story is timeless and still so relevant. Read this book. It is a short story that you can get through in a short time but that will stick with you long, long after. You will love it. I guarantee it.
Here’s a book review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Zikora if you’re thinking of another short African read.