They like to say “well-behaved women never make history.” I generally like to be a well-behaved woman, but then again, I’ve never exactly wanted to make history. And I’ve never seen any reason not to follow the rules. I follow the speed limit because it’s safer, and I’m not attentive enough to make a successful criminal. Never even got grounded as a kid because the only thing I really wanted to do was read, and I still don’t like staying out to late, and never like to loose my self-control.
But Firdaus in the “creative non-fiction” novel Woman at Point Zero hardly had the luxury of just keeping her head down and getting by. Many of her female peers have suppressed themselves and lost their individuality—and leaving Firdaus without any protection. It is her mother and aunt who most want to forced her into the mold of the obedient women—a fate that Firdaus is desperately attempting to escape throughout most of the novel. Until she is forced to actively confront one of the men oppressing her, she isn’t able to break free.
Firdaus is a woman born to a poor family in Egypt sometime perhaps around the 1950s. She is systematically abused by nearly everyone around her, and she eventually finds her way to prostitution. In fact, she is led to it by the first woman who actually also teaches her to take pride in herself. This woman never was really looking out for her, but she gave Firdaus strength nonetheless. Firdaus didn’t have trouble with the moral aspects of profession because she recognized she didn’t have any other avenue to support herself. She at one point tried to use her secondary school certificate to get a “real” job, and still, because she was a woman, she barely had a living wage and couldn’t even get promoted. When she thought she had a real relationship, her boyfriend (for lack of a better term) ended up announcing his engagement to the daughter of the president of the company.
Finally she returns to prostitution, and yet this time another man comes in to take control of her. This one is a pimp, very well-connected politically, and Firdaus has no way to protect herself from him. When she is forced to finally resort to physically leaving the situation, as she has done before, he tries to stop her—physically. He goes for his knife when she fights back, but she gets it first and stabs him to death. She is arrested and sentenced to death, a sentence she does not fight. She is imprisoned and interprets her situation in this passage:
They put steel handcuffs around my wrists, and led me off to prison. In prison they kept me in a room where the windows and the doors were always shut. I knew why they were so afraid of me. I was the only woman who had torn the mask away, and exposed the face of their ugly reality. They condemned me to death not because I had killed a man—there are thousands of people being killed every day—but because they are afraid to let me live. 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 have triumphed over both life and death because I no longer desire to live, nor do I any longer fear to die. I want nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us. The freedomIenjoyfills them with anger. They would like to discover that there is after all something which I desire, or fear, or hope for. Then they know they can enslave me once more (110).
Firdaus accepts her death sentence because it is finally a way she can fight the system and have her independence. It doesn’t sound all that great from my perspective, or from many people’s in the US I expect, because there are so many more options in this country at this time. At the very least a lawyer could argue self-defense…it would probably be an ideal case. But Firdaus doesn’t have that protection. Because women are so subjected in her country, and politically have no power. To reinforce the power of the patriarchy, Firdaus must be put to death. When she killed the pimp, it proves that women can fight back, can be stronger, even physically if necessary, than men.
I don’t think that when Firdaus says “They know that as long as I am alive they will not be safe, that I shall kill them” she literally means that she will “kill” them. She means she wouldn’t give into their power. She wouldn’t just accept the inferior position that society prescribed her. And if she wouldn’t give in she would set an example. They wouldn’t be able to take their “unlimited booty” so easily after that. It’s that ubiquitous “common knowledge” that education tends to lead to change—which is exactly what they don’t want.
And for those last few sentences? It seems that hoping and fearing and wanting ought to be basic human rights, if any there are. But Firdaus realizes, particularly for her own situation, that those kind of desires mean that she would have to work to get to any of them. It takes effort to hope, and you must be willing to sacrifice to avoid fear. If she had wants, hopes and fears, she would be vulnerable to the patriarchal tools of keeping women oppressed in their society. Murder is ugly, and I don’t think should ever be acceptable, but when Firdaus says “I was the only woman who had torn the mask away” she is right. In killing the pimp–and subsequently telling her story to El Saadawi–she is revealing the injustice inherent in her society. When Nawal El Saadawi tells Firdaus’ story to the world then something can be done by those who now understand the uglier aspects of their society. Even if Firduas cannotbe saved, others do not have to suffer as she did.
El Saadawi, Nawal. Woman at Point Zero. Trans. Sherif Hetata. New York: Zed Books, 2007.