Firstly, I need to point out that this book is incredible and you need to just go and buy it. Trust me.
Woman at Point Zero was first published in Arabic in 1975, and was translated and published in English by Zed Books in 1983. This beautiful 2015 reprint marks the novel’s 40th anniversary, along with two new editions of God Dies by the Nile, and other novels, and The Hidden Face of Eve.
It tells the story of Firdaus, a woman in prison for murder, awaiting her death sentence to be passed. Firdaus is an incredible character, and her life story is told in first-person, recounted to the narrator on the eve of Firdaus’ execution. Born into poverty in Egypt, Firdaus initially seems to be something of a victim of her birth; she undergoes FGM (having been circumcised herself, FGM is a subject El Saadawi has criticised before, and lost her job at the Egyptian ministry of health over) at the hands of her mother, and is forced into an arranged marriage with a violent man, forty years her senior, who she manages to leave after a particularly severe beating. Coming to realise her value lies in her being a commodity, Firdaus becomes a high end prostitute, naming higher and higher prices as she begins to understand the power she is able to wield.
I knew that my profession had been invented by men, and that men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth, and the one in heaven. That men force women to sell their bodies at a price, and that the lowest paid body that of a wife. All women are prostitutes of one kind or another.
After a brief spell in a more “respectable” office job, Firdaus returns to sex work when she begins to understand that respectability is not an option open to her, and that by trying to live a respectable life, she loses the power, wealth, and status she is able to achieve as a prostitute. She encounters further abuse, finally stabbing her pimp to death in her attempts to leave. After confessing to his murder, Firdaus is sentenced to death, and it is here that we meet her in prison, fearless in the face of her upcoming execution, wanting her story to be known. She is proud, and brave, and refuses to accept that she is guilty of a crime, despite admitting to having murdered her pimp. At the hands of men, throughout her life, Firdaus has been molested, beaten, and raped, and she cannot comprehend the idea of a “virtuous man”, as her husband was promised to be, instead seeing all men as criminals, and herself as having exacted justice.
Firdaus is an exceptional character, and El Saadawi writes her with compassion and conviction. As a radical feminist herself, she writes Firdaus as a sure, strong, woman, and is able to make sure that despite what has happened to her, she’s never a character you pity. The novel is a short one, but it packs Firdaus’ whole life into it, and as it’s based on fact, the idea that you’re never really sure where the line of fiction blurs into truth means that your attention from the page barely wavers.
Nawal El Saadawi is appearing at a few events in London during October, with the three new editions of her books available to pre-order now from the super awesome Zed Books. They’ll be released on 15th October. This guardian profile of El Saadawi is an old one, but it’s amazing.
*Disclaimer: Zed Books sent me proof copies (thank you!) of the new editions of Nawal El Saadawi’s books, but all writing and opinions are always my own.