Oops, rather forgot about this place 🙂 May as well catch up on the class blogs then:
I know I’ve been spoiled by living and the US and my own particular upbringing. I wasn’t told “you can grow up and do anything you want” because I was told “you can grow up and do whatever you want to do as long as you work for it.” I haven’t experienced sexism, and frankly I still find the whole concept bizarre. In my family, you do what you need to do to stand on your own two feet (I confess, I’m not particularly good at that yet. I blame college.)
It’s not like that everywhere—even in the United States—and in many countries women still suffer from entirely different societal values. Particularly in countries that have not “industrialized” women are still primarily “useful” in terms of their breeding capacity. Having someone carry on the family name, children to support the parents when they’re older, is far more important in more agricultural, rural, and poor societies, because they usually can’t rely on the government to take care of them.
When I first started reading Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, a novel that is in many ways more properly called creative non-fiction, I was a bit put off by the author. She starts the first chapter from her own perspective, going to meet a woman named Firdaus in prison and sentenced to death for murdering her pimp. There’s quite a bit about the guards and the author herself having some kind of almost supernatural connection to this Firdaus. I was never quite sure what to make of that chapter. I just didn’t buy it, and struggled with the book because I was questioning the author’s sanity after that chapter.
Well, at least I was until I saw her in an interview. Nawal El Saadawi is a writer, psychologist, activist, academic (escaped from the ivory tower), and a successful, intelligent woman from Egypt. I doubt I agree with all her views—but no one agrees with everyone all the time—and El Saadawi is so articulate and good-humored, that I must say, rather crudely, she’s entirely awesome. Unlike Firdaus, whether her character of the novel or the real woman, Nawal El Saadawi had a pretty good childhood: her father never yelled and wanted to be a poet, and her mother ensured her education and was also something of a romantic. To El Saadawi, this seems to have only emphasized the dichotomy in her own mind about how badly other women in Egypt are often mistreated, andinWoman at Point Zero she finds pretty much the lowest common denominator.
Firdaus, a woman to be put to death for killing her pimp, was abused physically, emotionally, and sexually for almost her entire life, and she tells Saadawi her story. From the beginning of the novel she is abused by her father, her mother, her uncle, her husband and then various acquaintances. Not only does her father beat her, he beats her mother, and then he seems to starve them both, while his other children die around them. Firdaus calls her siblings “chicks that multiply in spring…and one by one creep into a corner and die.” Her mother subjects her to some kind of a female circumcision, though Firdaus throughout the first half of the novel seems almost oddly innocent about everything sexual.
In a way rebelling against her parents’ abuse, Firdaus questions whether they are even truly her parents. Her father, who has no redeeming qualities, simply gets the line “I sensed he was not my father.” Her mother “was no longer there, but instead was another woman who hit me on my head.” Though she is told this is the same woman who taught her to walk with “two eyes that alone seemed to hold me up,” and Firduas says has the same features and clothes, but is still not the same person. Perhaps she has broken. Perhaps it really is a new wife. Or perhaps once Firdaus is past puberty she is dangerous. As a “lower class” Egyptian woman, Firdaus has no resources to protect herself. Though her situation is extraordinary, unlike her mother whose eyes have become “two extinguished lamps,” Firduas is never able to surrender. She truly wants to be independant. First she runs from her uncles home, then she runs from her husband, and then eventuallyfrom everyone who tried to own her body.
But Firdaus is only capable of running away, because even with her secondary school certificate she is not allowed to be powerful on her own. She will not submit to her society’s norms no matter what. But for the first half of the novel Fiduas is entirely vulnerable to anyone who offers her any kindness. Sharifa, though she acts as a mother to Firduas, offers her as a prostitute. Firduas is allowed to stay in her nice home, but “day and night, I lay on the bed, crucified, and every hour a man would come in.” Firdaus is sacraficed by the woman she trusts, and for a long time assumes it is simply the price for having received affection. She assumes it is her place.
Finally, she also discovers that Sharifa was another one taking advantage of her, and again runs away. Despite her circumstances, she still intends to be independant. Though so far the only way she is able to demonstrate her refusal to become give up her individuality. And when she runs away, she again runs into a man who only wants her as a prostitute. But this time he pays her. Firduas realizes that there is a place in society that she can make her own independance.