“This is the story of a real woman.– Nawal el Saadawi
They are coming to take her away in the evening and by morning she’ll be dead. Firdaus tells the psychologist as they sit on the cold floor in her cell, without a shred of fear in her. The story she’s about to tell her holds in it all the bricks that have paved the way to this point, where she has fully accepted her death penalty – point zero.
She is from a peasant family, with neglect and cruelty running through its veins. When her mother dies her uncle takes her to Cairo where she goes to school. Eventually, she completes her secondary school, and when his wife decides she’s now a burden they find a way to rid of her.
The years become a series of people disguising exploitation, cruelty, and abuse with temporary kindness and salvation. A coffee shop owner who takes her in but ends up locking her in his flat every day, returning to force himself on her, as well as inviting friends to do the same.
A female procurer who introduces her to the idea of being harder than life, seeing herself and knowing her value. She takes her in and pimps her out to one man after another while making money off her.
A police officer who gives her an ultimatum – to have her arrested or work out an “agreement” with her.
A man who sleeps with her and pays her money she’s never in her life held in her hand. A moment that opens her eyes to the realisation that she can choose whom to sleep with and to choose her price. Until the words of another man make her quit prostitution to seek a life where she can be an honourable woman, with an honourable job.
A man who teaches her that love can humiliate her more than prostitution could. She learns that in love she had let her guard down, given without a cost, while in prostitution she could give and name a price, get something in return.
A realisation that every woman is a prostitute and that she’d rather be one who names her prices, one with more freedom than the employee who prostitutes herself for praise, a raise or the delusion of respect, or the wife who is under the harshest system of men’s cruelty and deception.
Her return to prostitution becomes the last chapter before her imprisonment, where she learns that she was not as free as she had imagined she’d be when a pimp with strong connections comes into her life. She takes drastic action, an action that exposes all the men’s ugly reality. And so they cannot let her live.
In this haunting novel, Nawal el Saadawi writes without restraint. Woman at Point Zero is a story about the depth of inequality and injustice that girls and women are marked with upon birth.
We see this throughout the character’s life. When a daughter died in the family, her father would carry on with his life, eat and go to bed as usual. If a son died, he’d beat up his wife. When Firdaus finishes secondary school and despite the fact that she’s done exceptionally well, second in the school and seventh countrywide, her fate is still in the hands of others – the old abusive man she’s married off to, the men who use her body, insult and beat her up, the men who make decisions all her life.
It’s a bold novel, a story that exposes the roots that many societies proudly sit on. The brutal treatment of women echoes loudly from these pages. This short and poetically written novel is timeless, it’s a story that cannot be contained within the borders of Egyptian society but rather has its claws all over the world, in all kinds of societies, religions, communities, traditions, households, and individual women’s lives.
Firdaus is everywhere.