(The Demonization Of Men In Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero)
Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero is a powerful, tragic Egyptian novel relaying the life story of a woman awaiting death row in Qanatir Prison in Cairo for murdering a pimp named Mahzouk. She confesses to her crime unashamedly.
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The novel opens with the author’s account of her efforts to obtain an interview with a woman prisoner, whose unique demeanor fascinates and troubles the prison doctor, the warden, and eventually, the author. The woman, Firdaus, a prostitute, whose name means ‘paradise’ in Arabic is soon to be executed for murdering a pimp. The prison doctor and the warden inform the unnamed author (El Saadawi) that Firdaus is unwilling to speak to her, and has even refused to sign an appeal to the President that would commute her death sentence to life imprisonment. The author is inexplicably but deeply troubled by Firdaus’s refusal to be interviewed. She is then abruptly summoned to Firdaus’s cell where she listens to the prisoner’s tale. El Saadawi, as in her other autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works, emphasizes the factual nature of incident, despite the narrator’s sensation of the dream-like quality of her experience:
But this was no dream. This was not air flowing into my ears. The woman sitting on the ground in front of me was a real woman, and the voice filling my ears with its sound, echoing in a cell where the window and door were tightly shut, could only be her voice, the voice of Firdaus (El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero, 7).
The novel focuses on gender oppression and women subjugation. Ezeigbo (1997) captures this succinctly: Using the life experience of her protagonist, Firdaus, Saadawi gives a profound insight into the experiences of women in patriarchal society by delving into the protagonist’s experience from childhood to adulthood and marriage.
Saadawi, as a radical feminist, is disenchanted with the prevalent patriarchal system in the African society and the Arab world. In her novels, she demonstrates her utter condemnation of the treatment of women in Islamic society. This is amply demonstrated in her overly feminist novel, Woman At Point Zero.
In this novel, Firdaus, the protagonist is borne into a patriarchal society where women are oppressed, dehumanized and marginalized. As a little girl, she never enjoyed motherly love as her mother was preoccupied with trying to satisfy her insatiable husband who is portrayed in the novel as a callous, self-centred, and irresponsible man. Firdaus’s childhood was blighted by poverty and denigration, always being beaten up at the slightest provocation. All the domestic work in the house was hers alone to do, even at a very tender age. At a point, she begins to ask herself these searching questions:
Who was I? Who was my father? Was I going to spend my life sweeping the dung out from under the animals, carrying manure on my head, kneading dough, and baking bread. (16).
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These questions are triggered by her harrowing experiences in her father’s house, where she always feels like a stranger and a slave.
Firdaus’s father is bestialized in Woman At Point Zero. When one of his female children dies, he eats his supper with a great relish, and is not in any way disturbed. When his male child dies, he will beat his wife (Firdaus’s mother) thoroughly. As a religious hypocrite, he has no regard for the female gender, either as a wife or as a daughter. He also shirks from his responsibility of providing enough food for his family. His callousness is demonstrated by his eating the only food in the house while his wife and children look hungrily at him. After the meal, his wife will wash his legs as he smokes his pipe. He sleeps contentedly while the woman and her miserable, famished children toss around the bed, finding it difficult to sleep due to their inability to quell the protests in their stomachs.
Saadawi’s demonization of men in Woman At Point Zerois evident in Firdaus’s discovery in school in the course of her exposure to books. Intensive and voracious reading afford her the opportunity to explore the world of men, and unravel their oppressive proclivity. She painstakingly does a great deal of research on rulers from various climes. Her findings are mind-blowing:
I discovered that all these rulers were men. What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power. They were men who sowed corruption on the earth, and plundered their peoples, me endowed with loud voices, a capacity for persuasion, for choosing sweet words and shooting poisoned arrows. (26-27).
Firdaus discovers that the rulers of her own era are no better, and her the ordinary men she encounters in her life.
Another clear demonstration of the demonization of male characters in Saadawi’sWoman At Point Zero is in the character of the pimp Marzouk, whom Firdaus murders at the climactic stage of the novel. He is emblematic of male prostitution. He practically takes a stranglehold of Firdaus’s life and business, as captured by her:
I thought I had escaped from men, but the man who came this time practiced a well-known male profession. He was a pimp. I thought I could buy him off with a sum of money, the way I did with the police. But he refused the money, and insisted on sharing in my earnings (92).
Proudly, he informs Firdausthat he is in business, and women’s bodies represent his capital. The women do the work, while he collects the money.
Men are so bestialised in the novel that each time Firdaus picks up a newspaper and finds a man’s picture on it, she underlines her disgust with the men folk by spitting on it. She nurses a singular fiendish desire: to murder them. She laments:
However, all the men I did get to know, every single man of them, has filled me with but one desire: to lift my hand and bring it smashing down on his face. But because I am a woman, I have never had the courage to lift my hand. And because I am a prostitute, I hid my tear under layers of make-up (11).
Upon her father’s demise, she begins to live with her uncle, another bestialised man in the novel. He is a religious fanatic who vehemently opposes the idea of sending Firdaus to the University upon the completion of her secondary school education. He exclaims:
‘To the university? To a place where she will be sitting side by side with men? A respected Sheikh and man of religion like myself sending his niece off to mix in the company of men? (36).
Instead of that, he rather marries her off to the elderly Sheikh Mahmoud, regardless of how she feels about it. The character of Sheikh Mahmoud is discernibly repulsive. He has an oozing tumour on his chin, and he is physically revolting to Firdaus. He insists on sex regularly. He brutalizes her, and beats her at any slightest provocation. She never enjoys a single moment of marital bliss. She laments:
…he got into the habit of beating me whether he had a reason for it or not. On one occasion, he hit him all over with his shoe. My face and body become swollen and bruised…he hit me with his heavy stick until the blood ran from my nose and ears…(44-45).
Sheikh Mahmoud, realizing that Firdaus’s family will not intercede as is possible in other affinal situations, beats her so severely that she runs away into the streets. The owner of a coffee house, Bayoumi offers her temporary shelter. Saadawi’s apparent mission of demonizing all the men in the novel later manifests itself, as Bayoumi who is nice at the beginning suddenly metamorphosed into an oppressor. He beats Firdaus periodically, and sexually assaults her. When he is fully satiated, he invites his cronies to have sexual intercourse with her, after locking her up in the house for the whole day. She describes the sexual assault thus:
…he would come back in the middle of the night, pull the cover away from me, slap my face, and then bear down on me with all his weight. then one night, his body seemed heavier than before, and his breath smelt different, So I opened my eyes. The face above me was not Bayoumi’s (50).
Bayoumi and his cronies not only sexually assault her, they call her derogatory names like “bitch”, “slut”, and hurls insults at her late mother. In retaliation, Firdaus prefers to insult their fathers instead of their mothers who is a woman like her. When she eventually escapes from his house, she resorts to prostitution to make a living.
Remarkably, even as prostitutes, women are not free from male domination and oppression. First, it is Fawzy who employs a high-heeled prostitute, Sharifa Salah el Dine and any other girl who comes to her house under the pretext of shielding them from the police because, according to Firdaus: “the law punishes women and turn a blind eye to what men do.” (59).
The other men who Firdaus gets to meet are all demonized in the novel. One of them is known as Di’aa, a journalist by profession. Di’aa tells her that she lacks respectability because she is a prostitute. She seeks and eventually obtains a job at an industrial company. She lives miserably on brutally low wages, but studiously refuses the attention of members of the opposite sex. Despite her commendable efforts to attain respectability, she eventually realizes that as a poorly paid employee, she has gained no social status or respect, and that prostitution is less confining than the life of female employees who are perpetually terrified of losing their jobs.
In the novel, men are portrayed as great deceivers and incorrigible pretenders who come with all sorts of tricks to get what they want from unsuspecting women. After achieving their selfish aims, they abscond, leaving the women in the lurch. Firdaus’s experience while working in an office demonstrates this. She falls genuinely in love with a fellow worker, Ibrahim, who heads a revolutionary committee within the company. Her hope of achieving liberation from male oppression by falling in love is dashed. To her utter dismay, her lover, Ibrahim has become engaged to the company’s chairman’s daughter. He succeeds in using and dumping her. She laments:
…I became aware of the fact that I hated men, but for long years had hidden this secret carefully. The men I hated most of all were those who tried to give me advice…they thought they were better than I was…(8)
At the climax of the novel, a dangerous pimp, Marzouk is demonized. He threatens her, takes over her business, and deploys his network of connections to his advantage. When she attempts to leave, they argue. Firdaus stabs him to death in retaliation of his terrific slap. On the spur of the moment, she feels that her fear for Marzouk and even all men has vanished. She decides to murder the pimp Marzouk on the conviction of the fact that that is the only way she can liberate herself from him and his likes. She does not only kill Marzouk, she psychologically kills all the men who oppress, dehumanize, brutalize and assault her in her life time. While destroying the money an Arab prince gives her as a prostitute, she recapitulates the symbolic nature of her action:
It was as though I was destroying all the money I had ever held…and at the same time destroying all the men I had ever known, one after the other in a row: my uncle, my husband, my father, Marzouk and Bayoumi, Di’aa, Ibrahim, and tearing them all to pieces one after the other…ensuring that not a single vestige of these men would remain at all (98).
Firdaus meets the Arab prince shortly after the murdering of the prince, Marzouk. He takes her home and offers her $3000 as her fee. She sleeps with him, rips up the money, and slaps him. Terrified, the man calls the police who come and arrest Firdaus, who is later tried and sentenced to death.
By murdering a man, Firdaus suddenly becomes audacious and emboldened. She feels emancipated in herself, a sense of freedom from pervasive male oppression. She feels vindicated. She admits being a murderer, but strongly feels she has committed no crime because she kills men who are demonized in the novel as criminals. She maintains that “to be a criminal, one must be a man.” (100). When confronted with the reality of her impending death, she retorts that everybody will die one day. Firdaus labels all the men she has encountered as hypocrites, whom she is liberated from:
They know that as long as I am alive they will not be safe, that I shall kill them. My life means their death. My death means their life. They want to live. And life for them means more crime, more plunder, unlimited booty…I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear for nothing. Therefore I am free (101).
The demonization of men in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero is further pursued by the writer’s presentation of the nature of power as being the exclusive preserve of the men. For the young Firdaus, the nature of power is simple enough: men have it, and women do not. Firdaus’s father has power over her mother. Sheikh Mahmoud has power over her. Even men on the street wield power over the women they pass, merely ogling at them, turning them into sex objects with their eyes. Bayoumi who locks Firdaus in his apartment and lets his friends have sex with her has power over her.
Saadawi, as an avowed radical feminist advocates for a complete overthrow of patriarchy in the African society and the Arab world. Her language is vocal and uncompromising. Emenyonu (1996) gives an opposite comment on Saadawi’s style:
Saadawi uses language to advance the feminist ideology…She does not indulge in the use of subtle imagery or understatement but employs strong and sometimes caustic language to castigate men…The society is depicted as perverse and corrupt and the condition of men is presented as hopeless (10).
The blurb of the novel highlights some of the accolades which have been showered on the writer in the writing of the masterpiece. According to New York Times: ”Nawal El Saadawi writes with direction and passion, transforming the systematic brutalization of peasants and of women into powerful allegory.” The Washington Post avers that:”Saadawi writes with vigour and rage.” Spare Rib Magazine posits that:
Saadawi tells this story with the nakedness of truth, passion and pain. Her prose is simple, but sharp and incisive. Woman At Point Zero is the story of one Arab woman, but it reads as if it is every woman’s life.
Connextons Magazine hints on the feminist streak in the novel: ‘’Behind the story lies a major radical and feminist analysis of women’s oppression, not only in the Arab world or the Third World, but the world over.” Middle East Report hints on the theme of women oppression in the novel:
Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero cries out loudly against the prevalent Gender and class oppression of contemporary Egypt at a time when few others Have had the courage to raise their voices.
Unlike the print media reviewers who have characteristically pored encomiums on the novel, African literary critics and scholars have responded to it with mixed reactions. Saadawi’s overwhelming feminist zeal and demonization of men in the novel have been observed by some literary scholars. NadjeSadig Al-Ali (1994:26) opines that:
El Saadawi’s feminist zeal was too overwhelming in Woman At Point Zero, Just like in most of her works. She subordinated her characters and therefore Her language, and writing structures to the political novel format.
Wen-Chin Ouyang (1996:459) also criticizes Nawal El Saadawi thus:
In Woman At Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi continues the tradition of the Arab “novel of ideas” in which the message is the ultimate protagonist and the heroine and the men in the novel remain stereotypical in some degree.
Joseph Zeidan (1996:2) in a paper presented at the conference, Gender and Discourse, aptly entitled, “Representations of Men in the Novels of Nawal El Saadawi” amplifies Wen-Chin Ouyang’s opinion on the writer: The men in El Saadawi’s works are overtly stereotypical. In her widely-acclaimed novel, Woman At Point Zero, for instance, the men are described with animal metaphors and bestialized.
Finally, Fedwa Malti-Douglas (1995:12) posits that: By presenting Woman At Point Zero an at unattainable transformation and liberation for Firdaus only through death, readers understand Woman At Point Zero within the nuanced framework of feminism created by El Saadawi.
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