Being my second time indulging in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, I must admit I love it even more. According to Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, Woman at Point Zero could be classified as a testimonio, or “a novel or novella-length narrative, told in the first person by a narrator who is also the actual protagonist or witness of the events she or he recounts” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 210). Specifically, El Saadawi is helping “to create powerful subaltern voices” by recounting the story of Firdaus (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 210). This testimonio is nearly impossible to put down, even with my familiarity with Firdaus’ story. El Saadawi’s powerful narrative has me reaching for more.
Before delving into the story of Firdaus, I first want to examine Oyeronke Oyewumi’s piece “Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism.” In this piece, Oyewumi notes that the typical portrayal of colonization and colonial discourse presumes that all involved are male. This is problematic, of course, because we know that many of the indigenous people who were colonized were female. Oyewumi notes, “The histories of both the colonized and the colonizer have been written from the male point of view–women are peripheral if they appear at all. While studies of colonization written from this angle are not necessarily irrelevant to the understanding of what happened to native females, we must recognize that colonization impacted males and females in similar and dissimilar ways” (Oyewumi 339). Thus, although often written and told from the male perspective, we must consider these writings because, according to Oyewumi, “gender relations are not zero-sum–men and women in any society are inextricably bound” (Oyewumi 341).
One of the most important points that Oyewumi makes is that in the colonial situation, due to western logic, there were four categories of the hierarchy of power: “men (European), women (European), native (African men), and Other (African women). Native women occupied the residual and unspecified category of the Other” (Oyewumi 340). It is bad enough that the colonized are placed on the inferior marker of a the colonizer’s binary, but it is even more terrible that African women are, in a sense, ‘doubly colonized’ in this process by first subjecting them to the colonization and binary of colonizer/colonized, but then even further subjecting them to an even more inferior position as Other. The reason I had put ‘doubly colonized’ in quotes here is important: Oyewumi points out that for African women, “it is not colonization that is two, but the forms of oppression that flowed from the process for native females”(Oyewumi 340).
Oyewumi continues to explain how the Eurocentric thinking essentially strips the natives of any of their history; she explores how customary laws were revised and how new ‘traditions’ and ‘customs’ “produced a new social identity for females as dependents and appendages of men” (Oyewumi 354).
“The process of interiorizing the native, which was the essence of colonization, was bound up with the process of enthroning male hegemony. Once the colonized lost their sovereignty, many looked to the colonizer for direction, even in the interpretation of their own history and culture. Many soon abandoned their own history and values and embraced those of the Europeans. One of the Victorian values imposed by the colonizers was the use of body-type to delineate social categories; and this was manifested in the separation of sexes and the presumed inferiority of females” (Oyewumi 355).
This separation of sexes and assumed inferiority of females is apparent in Woman at Point Zero. In the testimonio, we learn about Firdaus’ life story and her struggles, which are arguably a result of her stat
us as a lower class woman. Even from a young age, Firdaus is exposed to the horrid binary man/woman as her father, the men around her, and even her uncle exhibit their superiority over her and the other women in her life. Her father, whom she has witnessed beating her mother, becomes similar to the other men in her town. Firdaus cannot understand how beating a woman was not sinful. When she asks her mother about her father, Firdaus is beaten and castrated in a sense, as the doctor “cut a piece of flesh from in between my [Firdaus’] thighs” (El Saadawi 12). Here is the first instance where we see the male/female binary. Firdaus is stripped of a pleasure sensing part of her body, in my opinion, because pleasure should only be felt by and afforded to men. It’s troubling that this happens to Firdaus at such a young age, but things keep getting worse; her uncle proves to be just like the other men in society as she would “glimpse my uncle’s hand moving slowly…to touch my leg. The next moment I could feel it traveling up my thigh with a cautious, stealthy, and trembling movement” (El Saadawi 13).
Firdaus comes to understand that society has constructed her gender and her place, but in the beginning, there is not much she can do about it. Even after her parents death, living with her uncle does not prove to be as fruitful as she had hoped. Eventually, his uncle’s new wife decides to marry off Firdaus. Upon reading about the relationship between Firdaus and her new husband, we are again exposed to the male/female binary and having females being viewed as inferior, similar to Oyewumi’s essay.
“On one occasion he hit me all over with his show. My face and body became swollen and bruised. So I left the house and went to my uncle. But my uncle told me that all husbands beat wives, and my uncle’s wife added that her husband often beat her…It was precisely men well versed in religion who beat their wives. The precepts of religion permitted such punishment. A virtuous woman was not supposed to complain about her husband. Her duty was perfect obedience” (El Saadawi 46-47).
And so Firdaus continued to be raped and beaten, surrendering her body “as though life had been drained out of it,” until finally she had had enough (El Saadawi 47). In hopes of escaping society’s construct of her as an inferior being, Firdaus heads to the streets with nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, Bayoumi, a man she meets who seems to be a kind man incapable of harm, turns out to be just like others, allowing his gang of friends to come in and rape Firdaus.
“He would come back in the middle of the night, pull the cover away from me, slap by face, and then bear down on me with all his weight. I kept my eyes closed and abandoned my body. It lay there under him without movement, emptied of all desire, or pleasure, or even pain, feeling nothing. A dead body with no life in it at all, like a piece of wood, or an empty sock, or a shoe” (El Saadawi 53).
Firdaus refused to give in to the pleasures of the men, refused to allow any pleasure afforded upon herself. Instead, she lay there motionless like a dead body, beginning to resists the oppression of males that has become so dominant in her life. It is not until Firdaus meets Sharifa that she begins to take control (somewhat) over her own body. Sharifa, whom we later learn is a pimp taking control of Firdaus and her profits, lets Firdaus in on a little secret: “A man does not know a woman’s value. She is the one who determines her value” (EL Saadawi 58). Here, we begin to see Firdaus take a little control over her body, although it is not much, as she only merely is able to set a price, but is still abused and raped the same.
It is not until she receives a high amount in return for her services that Firdaus begins to see her worth and object her position as inferior to men. She finally develops the ability to say “No” to men, stating, “There are plenty of men and I want to choose with whom to go” (El Saadawi 73).
*Sigh* We finally see Firdaus with some agency over her body, and it is a breath of fresh air in this heavy novella. She also agrees:
“How many were the years of my life that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from the people who held me in their grasp since the very first day? Now I could decide on the food I wanted to eat, the house I preferred to live in, refuse the man for whom I felt an aversion no matter what the reason, and choose the man I wished to have, even if it was only because he was clean and well manicured” (El Saadawi 74).
The ultimate moment of this novella, where Firdaus exposes her true agency, is when she stabs the pimp who tries to take control of her life. It is a fleeting moment where she notices fear in the male’s eyes, a fear she had never seen before. She states, “Why was it that I had never stabbed a man before? I realized that I had been afraid, and that the fear had been within me all the time, until the fleeting moment when I read fear in his eyes” (El Saadawi 104). In this moment, Firdaus is free. She is free from the fear, and she is attempting to free herself from the oppression. She no longer cares about life nor death; she fears nothing. She comes to realize that “a woman’s life is always miserable” (El Saadawi 97). She understands the societal and colonized binary that has restricted her and other women throughout her lifetime. She understands that women are trapped in this binary of male/female, constantly in the inferior spot.
“Now I was aware of the reality, of the truth. Now I knew what I wanted…A successful prostitute was better than a misled saint. All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, binding them in marriage and then chastise them with menial services for life, or insults, or blows” (El Saadawi 94).
Firdaus reaches a point of mental freedom, for nothing more could possibly hurt her. She realizes that “all women are prostitutes of one kind or another. Because I was intelligent I preferred to be a free prostitute, rather than an enslaved wife” (El Saadawi 99).
Despite her attempts to fight against the oppression that has been against her all her life, society does not let it happen. She says, “I found out that the law punishes women like me, but turns a blind eye to what men do” (El Saadawi 101). Society will continue to oppress women and continue the male/female Eurocentric binary tradition. Despite this, and Firdaus’ eventual death as a result of her ‘crime,’ Firdaus remains one of the most badass and influential women in my mind. She embraces her resistance. She understands her agency is a deadly weapon. She notes,” They condemned me to death not because I killed a man–there are thousands of people being killed every day–but because they re afraid to let me live. They know that as long as I am alive they will not be safe, that I shall kill them. My life means their death. My death means their life” (El Saadawi 110). Firdaus took a stand and fought for her rights, her rights to freedom, her rights to equality or maybe even superiority rather than inferiority, and most of all, her rights to her body, which has been colonized and abused by men over the span of many years. It is stories like that of Firdaus that are necessary to break the oppression of women, to break societal constructs and expectations of gender, to make the woman visible again.