Illusions of Respect: Tone and Techniques in Woman at Point Zero

Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero portrays a cruel, patriarchal society and focuses on a neglected, pain-stricken prostitute who escapes a childhood full of submission to discover power in prostitution. Throughout her entire life, Firdaus is torn between possessing power and earning the respect of her society. At one point, she is so intent on becoming respectable that she trades prostitution for a typical office job. However, after only three years, she returns to being a prostitute, prioritizing power over respect. Saadawi depicts an inverse relationship between power and respect in order to comment on gender inequities in Egyptian society.

Saadawi utilizes tone in order to illustrate the power Firdaus gains when defying social norms. After leaving her unsatisfying office job, Firdaus believes “she is free to do what she wants, and free not to do it. She experiences the rare pleasure….of being completely independent….[and] enjoying freedom from any subjection to a man” (95). Saadawi includes “free,” “pleasure,” and “independent,” to represent the liberation she has been striving for her entire life. By using an exceptionally confident tone, Saadawi exhibits the power that Firdaus now possesses to obtain her desires. Similarly, the tone used to portray herself after leaving the office job contrasts greatly with the embedded, self-descriptive tone at the beginning of her employment. Firdaus originally obtains this socially-acceptable job in order to gain respect, but ironically is described by a male superior as a “poor, miserable employee, unworthy of esteem” (81). This man’s supercilious tone is evident as he obscenely describes Firdaus while subjectively implying that his self-image and lifestyle is superior to hers. In this position, “[Firdaus’] body was….hemmed in by other bodies in the bus, [and was] a prey to male organs pressing up against it from in front and behind” (81). By comparing herself to a prey, Firdaus is recognizing her submission and more importantly, her lack of power. Conventionally, one is thought to have more power in an office job than in prostitution, but Saadawi destroys this faulty presumption by displaying contrasting tones in different stages of Firdaus’ career.

Additionally, Saadawi uses an aloof tone to establish Firdaus’ growing respect resulting from a lack of effort put into her job. Not only does Firdaus stop searching for acceptance in the workplace, she loses the determination she had when she was so desperate for respect. Satirically, “the word went round that [she] was an honorable woman….in fact the most honorable, and the most highly considered of all the female officials in the company” (83). The phrase “in fact” particularly conveys a nonplussed and slightly sarcastic tone that Saadawi uses to illustrate her lack of self-empowerment. By losing this power in herself, she gains respect from her colleagues, thus demonstrating the inverse relationship between power and respect. On top of Firdaus’ newly defined honor, “It was also said that not a single high-ranking official had been able to make me bow my head” (83). Once again, the standoffish tone conveys the lack of devotion Firdaus has to receiving and maintaining her honor. More importantly, by including the phrase “it was said,” Saadawi conveys the detachment and indifference Firdaus has towards this respect received from her colleagues. This detachment can be translated into a lack of power in herself, which ironically results in an augmentation of respect. Overall, Saadawi’s usage of an haughty tone following gained respect shows the inverse relationship between power and respect.

Along with distinct tones, Saadawi uses oxymoron and paradox to comment on the inequities in Egyptian society. Traditionally, a wife is seen as superior to a prostitute. However, after leaving her job, Firdaus considers herself to be “a very successful prostitute” (97). This phrase is oxymoronic because a prostitute is seen as the least desirable job. Success is defined as achieving wealth, fame, or respect. None of these qualities are ever associated with prostitution, yet Firdaus dares to consider herself successful. To attach a highly desirable characteristic to a dire job is paradoxical. Furthermore, Firdaus prefers “to be a free prostitute, rather than an enslaved wife” (99). This oxymoron redefines the socially-accepted definition of freedom, because society assumes that a prostitute is bound to her job, and unable to escape the endless cycle of manipulative men and involuntary actions. As Firdaus considers herself “free,” she is commenting on the inequities in Egyptian society. In addition, Firdaus claims that “the more respectable the profession, the higher the salary, and a person’s price goes up as he climbs the social ladder” (99). As a prostitute, Firdaus charges the highest price for her body, and lives a life full of wealth and prosperity. By saying “a person’s price goes up as he climbs the social ladder,” it can be inferred that Firdaus considers herself to be at the top of Cairo’s social ladder, which is a paradox. Society perceives those at the top of the social ladder to be successful, and more importantly, respected. By placing prostitutes, whom society equates with the Untouchables, at the top of the social ladder, Saadawi is illustrating the different perceptions of success and respect, thus criticizing the profound inequities in Egyptian society.

Saadawi uses metaphors, along with contradiction, to reveal the the prevalence of the inverse relationship between power and respect in the workplace. While Firdaus was still in the corporate world, “the building….had two doors: one for the more important higher level employees which remained unguarded, and another for the lesser officials which was guarded by one of the employees, very much like some kind of a doorkeeper” (80). The distinction of these two doors serves as a metaphor to show the unmistakable differences between high- and low-level employees, and further in high- and low-class members of society. A superior employee is portrayed to be respected and powerful simultaneously; yet this concept is spurious. When top executives would approach Firdaus, she “had no wish to humiliate [her] body at a low price” (82). By specifically using the word “humiliate,” a bold, audacious tone is created, displaying a compelling respect for herself. This tone contrasts with the other female employees “who were guileless enough to offer their bodies and their physical efforts every night….just to ensure that they would not be treated unfairly” (82). Describing these other employees as guileless further emphasizes the poor connotations associated with the word, and manipulates the women’s innocence into naiveness. Also, by including the word “just” it is evident that the assurance of their job is not worthy of their “physical efforts.” By offering their bodies at such a low price, they are losing any power that they previously had in themselves. However, this is necessary to gain an austere amount of respect from superior officials. This inverse relationship between power and respect is illustrated by Saadawi’s explicit use of metaphors.

Saadawi’s strategic use of various literary techniques depicts the inverse relationship between power and respect, while simultaneously commenting on the inequities in Egyptian society. Saadawi uses tone, oxymorons, paradoxes, and metaphors to display the illusion and different perceptions of the importance of power and respect. In the end, Firdaus prioritizes the power that she finds in prostitution, and subsequently gains self-respect.

Prostitution as a Source of Power and Independence

In her essay “From the Women’s Prison: Third World Women’s Narratives of Prison,” Barbara Harlow argues that the solidarity that transcends race, gender, class, and other social categories is a vital component in the fight against oppressive forces. She also claims that Firdaus’s affiliation with the psychiatrist in Nawal El Saadawi’s novel Woman at Point Zero ultimately allows Firdaus to share her story and become part of the collective struggle against “the authoritarian political structures and patriarchal hierarchies of Egyptian society” (Harlow, 512). However, throughout the novel, Firdaus continually turns to prostitution as a way of life, and it’s her decision to become a prostitute that poses the question as to whether or not Firdaus can truly defy the social order of her society. For example, Harlow argues that Firdaus objectifies her body and sells it in a way that places her in a role subordinate to men. On the contrary, one may argue that as a prostitute, Firdaus gains more power and independence than other women in her society. Ultimately, Firdaus does obtain some degree of power and independence by proving to herself that she “owns” her own body and that she is the one who determines her own destiny. Therefore, Woman at Point Zero challenges “the social order which has assigned women to a subordinate position under the control of her male partners” (Harlow, 512) in that Firdaus controls the ways in which she utilizes her body as a prostitute to gain power and independence.The first time Firdaus becomes aware of her own power is when Sharifa introduces her to prostitution. Sharifa is the one who, through the skillful application of cosmetics, helps Firdaus to see her inner beauty and strength. Firdaus claims that Sharifa opens her eyes to unseen features of her face and body, making her more aware and understanding of them. And it’s with Sharifa’s help that Firdaus discovers that she has “black eyes with a sparkle that attract other eyes like a magnet” (Saadawi, 58). Beauty for Firdaus is one way she is able control her own body. For example, a man does not determine how Firdaus’s hair will be styled, what clothes she will wear, or how her make-up will be applied. Rather, it’s Firdaus herself who determines her appearance. Therefore, Firdaus uses her beauty as a way to lure and tease the men in her society. And while staying with Sharifa, Firdaus learns that she is the one who determines her own value. Instead of seeing her nose as big and round, Firdaus begins to see it with the “fullness of a strong passion that can turn to lust” (Saadawi, 58). She begins to embrace her appearance, which in return, raises her self-confidence, something she once lacked in childhood. By embracing her beauty and increasing her self-confidence, Firdaus is able to gain power and control, thus challenging the claim that men are in control of women. Although Firdaus learns to appreciate her beauty under the guidance of Sharifa, Firdaus decides to leave because she realizes that she needs to make her own money if she wants to obtain her own power and independence. And it’s not long after leaving Sharifa that Firdaus sleeps with a man who gives her a ten-pound note. This is the first time that Firdaus realizes that in order to obtain power, independence, and respect, she must acquire a lot of money. When Firdaus goes to the restaurant and gives the waiter the ten-pound note, she is treated with respect, and she realizes it’s the first time in her life that she eats “without being watched by two eyes gazing into [her] plate to see how much food [she] took” (Saadawi, 71). The waiter even bows over the table with a movement of “respectful humility” (Saadawi, 71) as he collects Firdaus’s money. This shows Firdaus’s control over him, which in return gives her a feeling of power and superiority that she has never felt before. The encounter with the waiter also helps Firdaus to understand how she can utilize her body in such a way that will allow her to acquire enough money to live independently. Firdaus’s apparent control also supports the claim that Woman at Point Zero challenges the social order that traditionally places men above women.After leaving the restaurant, Firdaus begins to believe in herself: she ceases to bend her head down or to look away. Instead, she walks the streets with her head held high and her eyes looking straight ahead. She even exclaims, “My footsteps struck the ground with force, with a new elation” (Saadawi, 73). As men pass her on the streets, Firdaus utilizes her control by declining the men’s invitations. She repeatedly mutters no, which puzzles them. One such male persistently asks Firdaus, “Well, why not?” and Firdaus confidently responds: “Because there are plenty of men and I want to choose with whom to go” (Saadawi, 73). As an independent prostitute, Firdaus begins to choose which men she will and will not sleep with. She also decides on the food she eats and the house she lives in. Because of this, Firdaus begins to believe in her own independence. In prostitution, Firdaus’s body becomes her own, to do with as she wishes. Firdaus even has free time to go to the movies and read books. She utilizes her free will, which once again challenges the statement that men are in control of women.Despite Firdaus’s accomplishments as an independent prostitute, her power is challenged when her friend Di’aa declares that Firdaus is not a “respectable woman” (Saadawi, 76). However, because Firdaus is so determined to be a respectable woman, she decides to look for work in an office instead of the streets. Firdaus gets a job but then she realizes that the men at the office think they can take advantage of her by raising her salary. Firdaus despises them for thinking such a thing, saying “the price of my body is much higher than the price that can be paid for it with a pay rise” (Saadawi, 81). She believes that as a prostitute she had been looked upon with much more respect and been valued higher than all of the female employees. Firdaus claims that she “feels sorry for the other girls who are guileless enough to offer their bodies and physical efforts every night in return for a meal, or a good yearly report” (Saadawi, 82). Unlike these women, Firdaus doesn’t let the men break her pride. For example, none of the officials are able to make Firdaus bow her head or lower her eyes to the ground. Although Firdaus is able to remain in control as an office worker, she decides that prostitution might be a surer path to dignity and self-determination than the “respectable” life of an office assistant.Upon quitting her job, Firdaus returns to the life of an independent prostitute, where she continues to challenge the social order by acquiring even more power than she had before. She is soon paid the highest price, becoming so successful that she obtains the power to employ any servant to wash her clothes or clean her shoes. Firdaus even donates money to a charity and gets her picture printed in the newspaper, which says that she is a “citizen with a sense of civic responsibility” (Saadawi, 100). By utilizing her body as a prostitute again, Firdaus convinces herself that she has chosen prostitution with her own free will. She claims, “my insistence on remaining a prostitute proved to me this was my choice and that I had some freedom, at least the freedom to live in a situation better than that of other women” (Saadawi, 97). Firdaus further believes that having to be a wife is much worse than being a prostitute, for marriage in Firdaus’s eyes is the “cruelest suffering for women” (Saadawi, 96). As a wife, Firdaus had to passively watch her husband make choices, beat her incessantly, and force her to have sex with him. But as a prostitute, she is free to do what she wants. Firdaus experiences the rare pleasure of being “completely independent, of enjoying freedom from any subjection to a man, to marriage, or to love; of being divorced from all limitations” (Saadawi, 95). This power and independence that Firdaus achieves proves that the novel challenges the social order that places women in a subordinate position.As mentioned above, Firdaus prefers prostitution to marriage as a way of life, for as a successful prostitute she is independent and self-supporting, free to choose the men with whom she will associate. Firdaus therefore utilizes her body as a prostitute to gain power and independence. And it’s this power and success that gives Firdaus the confidence to defy the social code and murder the pimp. Even though Firdaus is condemned to prison to die, she becomes part of a collective struggle against oppression when she agrees to share her story with El Saadawi. Ultimately, “Firdaus’s personal story ends with her execution, but the narrative of her life becomes part of a historical agenda” (Harlow, 512). In the end, it’s clear that Woman at Point Zero challenges the social code that places women in a position subordinate to men.

The Symbolic Significance of Eyes

In a society where women are made to be invisible, the ability to see and be seen is exceptionally impactful. Eyes serve as the ultimate testament to experiences and as a vital means of social commentary in a particularly misogynistic culture. Firdaus emphasizes eyes to reveal the emotional depth they hold, indicate the significance of relationships within her life, and stress the gender disparity she experiences throughout her life. The imagery of eyes is developed throughout the novel from a symbol of comfort to a statement of possession and dominance. Nawal El Saadawi utilizes eyes as a symbol of the forms of captivity present in Firdaus’ life in Woman at Point Zero.

Originally, eyes serve as a symbol for the comfort and security that Firdaus’ mother provides for her. The attention and affection one receives from a mother cannot be replaced, however it is this genuine connection that Firdaus so desperately yearns for for the entirety of her life. Firdaus’ reliance on her mother is strongly enforced by her need for a female role model in a society influenced purely by men, and eventually she learns to overcome the barriers even her mother could not surpass. Firdaus’ dependence of this relationship is evident as she describes the “two eyes to which [she] clung to with all [her] might… two eyes that alone seemed to hold [her] up” (17). However, what was once a symbol of validation becomes a constant reminder of her vulnerability, a by-product of her attempts to prove her worth and find acceptance. The first time Firdaus experiences rejection in this form is by her step-mother, and a crucial indication of this is within her imagery of her eyes, stating that “they were not two rings of pure white surrounding two circles of intense black… no light seemed ever to touch the eyes of this woman” (17). This imagery initially compares her eyes to her mother’s, and then emphasizes the difference in their emotional connotations, indicating darkness and fear. Because of the new intimations that become associated with eyes after this point, this significance of this symbol is no longer straightforward and simple. Eyes progressed passed plainly being an indication of trust or strength, and the symbol became complex by providing a dynamic representation of her relationships. From this point on, the complexity of eyes causes internal turmoil within Firdaus as she continues to seek the comfort and acceptance that is redolent of her past. However, her attempts to assert her personal value are constantly overshadowed by the fact that she is a victim of a fiercely patriarchal society that refuses to acknowledge her merit.

The evident eye imagery throughout Firdaus’ youth illuminates her search for comfort and acceptance, and becomes addressed particularly in an interaction with her teacher, Miss Iqbal. She intervenes with Firdaus’ pensive state of mind, prompting her to comment “I could see her eyes looking at me… despite the darkness…they were after me…holding on to me… refusing to let me go” immediately providing warmth and concern (28). Miss Iqbal’s motherly nature makes her easily comparable to Firdaus’ mother, and the parallelism between the two characters becomes undeniable once she is described as having the same “two rings of pure white, surrounding two circles of intense black” in her eyes (29). Her desperation for this motherly comfort is noted as she describes how “[her] fingers held on to her hand with such violence that no force on earth, no matter how great, could tear it away from [her]” (30). However, this seemingly unbreakable bond proves to be in vain, as Miss Iqbal fails to acknowledge the interaction furthermore. This abandonment causes the feeling of solace Firdaus once found in the eyes of another to become that of uneasiness and possession. The initial development in this symbolism becomes apparent when Firdaus is picturing Miss Iqbal’s eyes and “opened [her] eyes wide in panic as if threatened with blindness,” signifying how this symbol henceforth becomes haunting and despairing. The pattern that is established by the symbolic use of eyesemphasizes her tendency to rekindle a long lost memory that inevitably leads to loss.

Despite these newly developed nuances Firdaus begins to associate with eyes, she continues to cling to the remnants of a warmer past once linked to the symbol. Because the basic human right of acceptance has been denied throughout her entire lifetime, her desire for it only becomes more intense and evident within each of her interactions. Still seeking comfort in the eyes of others, she begins a new relationship with a man named Ibrahim. As she falls in love with him, she describes his eyes with the repetitive imagery of black and white rings, signifying the intensity of the relationship. However, this relationship follows the path of each before it, and turns into one of deceit and abandonment. Firdaus learns of Ibrahim’s impending marriage to another woman, and in her grief, she describes her natural tendency to yearn for acceptance and love by stating: “I wanted nothing, nothing at all, except perhaps one thing. To be saved through love from it all… To become a human being who was not looked upon with scorn, or despised, but respected, and cherished and made to feel whole” (94). This self-realization is essential to the character development of Firdaus, because as she finally acknowledges her own vulnerabilities, she can become stronger and more independent. Soon after this, Firdaus continues her revelations, understanding the truth of the discrimination and disparity in society. The parallelism drawn between Ibrahim and Miss Iqbal is uncanny, both including nearly identical scenes of Firdaus awakening from a frightened dreamlike state while imagining the eyes, then engaging in a conversation with a friend, stating both times that the love between Firdaus and the other is impossible. The blatant similarity between the two situations serves to equate the two, while also subtly emphasizing the difference in Firdaus’ reaction to each doomed relationship. She suffered after coming to realize that she would never again see Miss Iqbal, and though she did the same at the end of her relationship with Ibrahim, she finally used the experience to gain virtue and move forward with her life. This becomes clear when she notes how the greatest achievement is “being completely independent” and “enjoying freedom from any subjection to a man, to marriage or to love” (95). From this point on, she realized the atrocities that result from men, the uselessness of love, and the importance of independence. Losing her love with Ibrahim led to her finally grasping self-love and asserting her feminism, and accordingly, she never again mentions eyes as a symbol.

Throughout Woman at Point Zero, Firdaus has difficulty discerning the forms of captivity that are developed through the symbolism of eyes. She relishes the safety and comfort that can result from captivity out of love, because her desperate need for acceptance and affection cannot be fulfilled. Yet without fail, this captivity becomes one of fear, and Firdaus fully experiences the trauma of rejection and abandonment. Though eyes are symbolically utilized with both positive and negative connotations, ultimately, they represent others’ perceptions, something Firdaus learns to dismiss, after an incessant series of disappointment and loss.