Portrayal of the Mistreatment of Women in Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

How has my understanding of the content and cultural elements developed through interactive morals? When we were reading Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi I got to know about the way of life and the social position of women in Egypt for the first time. It was really fascinating and brutal at the same time. Growing up in a democratic country where religion is separated from the state and people are equal in front of the law, it was very important to understand how the traditional values of a patriarchal and religious society were and still are reflected in the legal system.

Radical Islam has brought women their worst conditions ever in modern history. They have less chance to study and access the labour market and more restrictions than before. Men and women are not equal in front of the law for example in case of divorce. With Islam being the religion of more than 90% of Egyptians, there is no way of hiding from it unless, the people leave the country, however, they wouldn’t do that, as Egypt is still their home. An important learning for me is that as Islam represents tradition and belongs to the national identity of Egyptians, the majority of people agree with using the Sharia law as base of conduct. Women traditionally have to obey men and do as they say. They are not allowed to speak out against men and the government without severe consequences. Women’s traditional role is to take care of their families, which makes them economically dependent on their husbands. It is very important to understand how the practice of genital mutilation is used to subdue women and make them accept the husbands that their family chose for them.m What I found out about El Saadawi herself was that Woman at Point Zero was not only influenced by the story of that woman she met at the prison, but her own experiences during her life. I also came to understand that women were a minority group in prison and that previously men and women were not separated which meant further abuse. The women in prison were the lowest of the low as a group, which was and is the case in the outside world.

How does El Saadawi use eyes in conveying Firdaus’ journey in Women at Point Zero? Eyes in literature are often referred to as “windows to the soul”; they reflect emotions and communicate messages about mental state. The role of silent communication with eyes is of great importance in suppressive patriarchal societies like Egypt where free speech of women is severely restricted. In El Saadawi’s work eyes are not only a central means to cognition and communication, but become important symbols in visualizing and developing the key themes of the novel. El Saasawi uses eyes to describe her characters and to convey her messages about the role of surveillance, fear and longing for attraction in Firdaus’ journey to gain control of her destiny. El Saadawi uses eyes to portray Firdaus’ changing relationship with other characters. As Firdaus is telling her life story, her capability of reading eyes is emphasised at each significant encounter. For example, when Firdaus meets Bayoumi the cafeteria owner he gains her trust due to the emotions that are reflected in his eyes. She sees his eyes “resigned and calm…/did not seem to me like eyes… who would kill” (49), the adjectives “resigned” and “calm” are important here as Firdaus is seeking peace and protection after being brutally beaten up. However, she does not realize that “resigned” and “calm” can signify just a temporary state of mind, as Bayumni was resigning from violence while manipulating her to place herself under his control and to fulfil his sexual desire by giving her food and shelter. However, when she speaks up about finding a job, he turns into a sexual predator. Firdaus registers the change immediately as it is signified by the change in his eyes. She can feel that his eyes start to rake her body “Two jet black surfaces that stared into my eyes…/ A cold shiver of death went through my body” (52). The word “surfaces” suggests that Firdaus cannot connect with his eyes, she can only see the surface, he is intimidating and threatening. The graveness of the threat is underlined by the physical reaction of Firdaus’ body trembling with the “cold shiver of death”. The change of the relationship between Firdaus and Bayoumi is expressed via the contrast between his eyes being calm and resigned at the beginning and becoming threatening black inhuman objects during the conflict. The encounter with Bayuomi is significant, as its pattern and imagery are repeated throughout the novel conveying El Saadawi’s message about the social injustice of women’s subdued position in which they are prone to sexual predation.

The author uses eyes to create predatory imagery expressing how women are turned into sexual objects. As she escapes from her abusive husband, Firdaus is confronted with “Two glaring eyes…” threateningly approaching her “Closer and closer …/dropped their gaze with slow intent…” (44). The verb “dropped” is backed up by “slow”, imitating the behaviour of a predator for example, like a big cat slowly circling around, focusing on and giving its full attention to its prey. The two black eyes slowly sweep over Firdaus’ body that becomes meat, the object of their hungry desire. In addition, El Saadawi uses personification to underline how much the predatory eyes are threatening. They come alive, they move, they go and might “rise up” suddenly – without specifying the person who they belong to. This suggests, that the threat they represent belongs to males in general portraying El Saadawi’s views on gender imbalance in the society. While moving further from the predatory eyes “I was able to move my body a few steps away from the eyes…” (44) a next layer of the metaphor is being built up “but I felt them on my back boring through me from behind” (44). In this quote, the eyes are compared to a knife that intends to stab Firdaus.

By doing so, El Saadawi magnifies the threat represented by them: they are not only silently menacing, but visualized as a tool to harm, which creates another spark of fear in Firdaus evoking the concept of “evil eyes” that is common superstition in the Middle-East (Eye Motifs). Furthermore, the predatory imagery is completed by portraying Firdaus at this situation as the paralyzed prey having difficulties “to move her body” with the predatory eyes behind her. Finally, the simile “shudder passed through my body like the fear of death” (44) compares two very different things: one tiny movement of shudder and the massive state of death to paint a picture of the fragility of Firdaus’ observant behaviour foreshadowing the tragic end. When contrasting the trembling motion with death Saadawi does not only show the fragility of Firdaus but also, displays the visceral fear felt by many women when objectivised.

Watching eyes are depicted as symbols of control when Firdaus talks about her husband constantly watching her “He kept looking at my plate when I ate…All day long ….by my side…watching me” (42) Adding on to the predatory imagery, this example leads onto men being characterised with animalistic way of behaviour, where the one who looks the other in the eye the longer wins control. The stronger animal is the one disposing about food. Moreover, “watching me” enforces the animalistic behaviour, as there is no conversation between them, just the silence of the eyes bearing down on her. This meaning of the watching eyes motif is revisited from a different angle when she describes how deliberating it was to eat the first meal purchased from her own money while the waiter politely avoided staring into her plate. “The movement of his eyes as they avoided my plate cut like a knife through the veil which hung over my eyes, I realized it was the first time in my life I was eating without being watched.” (71) The small “movement” of the waiter’s eye has an enormous impact as it leads Firdaus to realize that money can give her freedom and from this point of the novel starts to fight actively for gaining control over her body and over her life. The waiter respected her right to eat freely the food that she paid for herself. By using the simile “cut like a knife” El Sadaawi further elaborates that the eyes can be used as weapons to destroy, however in this case something symbolic has been destroyed “the veil which hung over my eyes”. She realizes that the veil that women wear for protection also blinds them to see that the price of protection is being controlled.

As control might be related to care El Saadawi works out these layers of meaning of the eyes motif when describing Firdaus’ relationships to the people to whom she is emotionally attracted. The first example of this use is the description of her mother’s eyes “…eyes that watched me, …/would hold me up. I only had to look into them for the white to become whiter and the black even blacker, as though sunlight was pouring into them from some magical source” (16). Her mother controls her, but also protects her when she falls. When their eyes meet a “magical light” makes it possible for them to see although everything is dark. This light “from a magical source” is possibly the symbol of love, giving hope in the “pitch dark” outside world. The few affectionate moments always start by her intense look into the other’s eyes “for the white to become whiter” (16), as if seeking the redemption of love. As later she explains that she always hoped “To be saved through love from it all.” making it possible for her to become a respected human being. (91). This sequence of words describing eyes as “two rings of intense white around two circles of intense black” (16) occur also when she meets her teacher Miss Iqbal and her love Ibrahim. Although, all her affectionate relationships end with despair, Ibrahim being the last disappointment, via these disappointments she becomes stronger and more and more detached that would finally, enable her to be free of all fears reaching her ultimate freedom in her prison cell waiting for her death. El Saadawi uses eyes as an elaborate multi layered motif that helps to portray her message about the social injustice of women’s subdued position. With eyes, she is creating a predatory imagery showing how mercilessly women are subjected to sexual and physical abuse. However, Firdaus’ confrontations also express the stages of her emotional growth and awakening realizing that she can gain control about her own life even though only by choosing to die.


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