An Analysis Of The Theme Of Choice And Its Impact On Firdaus’ Power In Woman At Point Zero By Nawal El Sadaawi
Woman at Point Zero follows the first-person narrative of an Egyptian woman, Firdaus, as she tells the story of her life from early childhood to her execution for murder. During years of abuse and neglect as a child, Firdaus never felt the pleasure of choice or love. In fact, she rarely experienced pleasure at all. This predicament continued to plague her in adolescence and adulthood as Firdaus, like many women in her society at the time, was disrespected and maltreated on the sole basis of her gender. Even the fundamental right to choose was seen as a luxury, and one that Firdaus was deprived of. Throughout the novel, El Sadaawi explores choice from multiple perspectives – gender, money, and self-worth. As a result, two different types of power are revealed – the societal power of the patriarchy, and the personal power of choice. On Firdaus’ journey to establish herself within society, choice is pivotal to her loss and gain of power. It is at times when she has the ability to choose that she possesses the most power over her own life, and times when she is deprived of choice that she is most powerless.
In the setting of the novel, it was rare that women in Egypt, due to their gender, could make any choices for themselves. To young Firdaus, the nature of power was clear: women were dominated by the men in their lives. After witnessing the power her father had over her mother, and experiencing the power her uncle, arranged husband, and Bayoumi had had over her, Firdaus concluded that ‘men were in control of … earth, and… heaven’ (El Sadaawi, 99). She saw women being treated as possessions rather than people deserving of respect. El Sadaawi uses the symbol of ‘eyes’ to describe Firdaus’ experiences with the people she meets, especially when encountering the misogyny and sexual discrimination prevalent throughout Egypt’s patriarchal society. Firdaus equated the act of seeing with the act of possession, reflecting the connection between surveillance and ownership. Early in the novel, Firdaus describes the memory of her mother as ‘eyes that watched me’. This was a sense of belonging to her mother, and the comfort of being looked after. Her mother’s eyes that surveilled and cared for her symbolised love. However, as Firdaus falls victim to sexual assault and misogyny time and time again, the symbol of the eyes morph into something much more sinister. They become predatory and invasive, a threat rendering Firdaus powerless and objectified. Upon fleeing her uncle’s house for the first time, Firdaus describes a man who weaponized his eyes, comparing them to ‘a knife or a razor’ as he ran them over her body – ‘I felt them on my back, boring through me from behind’. Firdaus’ violent and intrusive description of eyes displays her belief that men felt women and their bodies existed only for their pleasure. Whilst undergoing a constant struggle to reclaim her body as her own, Firdaus meets Sharifa Salah el Dine, a wealthy, independent prostitute who introduces Firdaus to the illicit industry. Firdaus had been expected to simply yield to sexual assault, but Sharifa teaches her that since the female body was something men desired, it was of high monetary value to them, allowing her to utilise male lust to her advantage.
The idea of prostitution takes the novel in an alternative direction regarding choice and power, from gender and patriarchy to money, an important motif. To Firdaus, money is power. For as long as she could remember, Firdaus had been at the mercy of men. Now, however, she was being controlled by a woman, Sharifa, because Sharifa had money and Firdaus did not. To men, Firdaus represented an object to be used for sex, whereas to Sharifa, she represented a financial asset to be pimped out for income. Having grown up in a poor family, Firdaus had never had her own money until she started prostituting herself. The first time Firdaus was paid for sex was ‘the first time I had held such a big note in my hand’. Firdaus’ preconceptions about social dynamics and power were entirely altered, which she describes as having ‘lifted a veil from my eyes’ and ‘seeing for the first time’. Her eyes were opened to a new world free of the oppression of men, where women could harness their own power and take ownership over their own bodies. As a prostitute, Firdaus commanded increasingly high prices, exercising the power she gained by choosing with whom and when to have sex. To men, female bodies were merely commodities – the higher the difficulty to obtain, the higher the cost. Upon assertively demanding twenty pounds from a man rather than the ten he initially offered, he says, ‘“Your wishes are my orders,” and paid me on the spot’. With the power of choice presented by money, Firdaus was no longer at the mercy of the patriarchy. She fulfils the goal she set at the beginning of her narrative – ‘all my life I have been searching for something that would make me feel superior to everyone else, including kings, princes and rulers’. However, she soon recognises that money can be treacherous, and yet another symbol of the hypocrisy of society. By the time Firdaus kills the pimp and demands £3000 from the prince, she realizes money could give power to the unworthy and make despicableness seem respectable. Tearing up the £3000, Firdaus demonstrates that through her newly gained sense of self, money truly had no power over her anymore.
Perhaps most importantly, Firdaus gains power as she gains choice through self-worth. Throughout her life, Firdaus had been trapped within a cycle of care and abuse, first by her uncle, then Bayoumi, then Sharifa. They would ostensibly take care of her, but all had ulterior motives to use her for sex or profit. When Firdaus meets Bayoumi for the first time, he asks her, ‘Do you prefer oranges or tangerines?’. Firdaus had never been asked for her preference before, because nobody had ever cared. This opened Firdaus’ eyes to options and her ability to choose, creating the foundation for her future craving to make her own decisions. After becoming a prostitute, Firdaus finally gains a sense of independence and self-determination. This even translated to her physical behaviour, as she says, ‘from that day onwards, I ceased to bend my head or look away’. Firdaus breaks the vicious cycle, and her newfound self-worth ensures she will not become imprisoned within it again. As Sharifa told her, ‘A man does not know a woman’s value… she is the one who determines her value’. When Firdaus refuses to sleep with certain men, she witnesses their vulnerability as they panic and offer her ever- increasing amounts of money, terrified that they might not be as powerful as they thought. After her arrest, Firdaus realises she is unafraid of what all the powerful, hypocritical men fear most in society – ‘I no longer desire to live, nor do I fear to die. Therefore, I am free.’ Rather than living trapped in a society restricted by rules others made for her, Firdaus chooses not to live at all. Firdaus’ choice to die is the peak of her self-empowerment, making the extent of her hatred towards society evident. She challenges the power of those who think they are punishing her, and finally feels more powerful than them, simply because she had the ability to choose. Ironically, it is within the jail cell that she is freest, and feels she has the utmost control over her own life. She tells the journalist, ‘It is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us. The freedom I enjoy fills them with anger’. El Sadaawi concludes ‘the woman sitting on the ground in front of me was a real woman’. Firdaus becomes more than just a case study for the journalist; she becomes a symbol of truth, and a demonstration of society’s wrongdoings. She fought for the right to be herself, ending up in prison for killing a man to achieve self-determination.
The correlation between choice and power within Woman At Point Zero is abundantly clear. As Firdaus gains the ability to choose, whether it be through breaking boundaries in gender roles, wealth, or the attainment of self-worth, she possesses more and more power. She can no longer be controlled by societal conventions and restrictions, or the pursuit of wealth. She is a symbol of individuality, using her freedom in attempts to create change. During years of her power being stifled and limited, such as her arranged marriage to the Sheikh or being locked up by Bayoumi, Firdaus suffered endless physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the corrupt. Therefore, to Firdaus, the four walls of the prison cell were not symbolic of failure, but a visual representation that she had achieved true independence and choice, leading her to feel more powerful than she ever had before.
- El Sadaawi, Nawal. Woman At Point Zero. London: Zed Books Ltd, 1983. Print.
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