Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi
In this paper, the literary analysis of a selected passage from Nawal El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero is made. The passage is analysed within the larger context of the book and its key messages. Overall, the essay focuses on the issues, as well as themes, and symbols identified in the passage and interprets them, looking at Woman at Point Zero as a whole.
In fact I never even left the bedroom. Day and night I lay on the bed, crucified, and every hour a man would come in.
There were so many of them. I could not understand where they could possibly have come from. For they were all married, all educated, all carrying swollen leather bags, swollen leather wallets in their pockets. Their swollen heavy paunches hung down with too much food, and their sweat ran copiously filling my nostrils with a foetid smell, like stagnant water, as though it had been held back in their bodies for a long time. I turned my head away, but they insisted on pulling it back, on burying my nose in the smell of their bodies. They dug their long nails into my flesh and I would close my lips tightly trying to stifle any expression of pain, to hold back a scream. (El Saadawi 57)
This passage describes the experience of Firdaus when she was a prostitute and worked for her madam Sharifa Salah el Dine, an experienced prostitute. Firdaus, an Egyptian woman who is about to face execution, is the protagonist of El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero. She tells the story of her life to the doctor psychiatrist in the prison the day before execution. The heroine's account starts with her infancy, covers her childhood years, and goes on up to the time she was arrested for a murder. Infancy was full of poverty and her father's neglect. Her father's children and her mother starved and suffered from beatings. Besides, since she was born, Firdaus had felt discrimination based on the fact that she was a woman. Childhood years were marked by her sufferings, especially when Firdaus had to undergo the surgery of clitoridectomy. She was an object of sexual exploitation of her uncle.
When her parents die, Firdaus is taken to live with her uncle. He sends her to a boarding school. However, once her uncle gets married, Firdaus is forced to marry a stingy, ugly, and old widower, who incessantly beats her. When she finally runs away from him, the protagonist falls into the hands of another brutal man Bayoumi, who sexually exploits her and allows his friends to do the same. Once she runs away, Firdaus meets an old prostitute, who offers her food, clothes, and shelter in exchange for her sexual services. Despite the fact that Firdaus becomes a wealthy woman over time, she decides that she wants to live an honourable life, even if it means having only a meagre income. She gets a job in one company and rejects all sexual interests expressed by high-ranking men. However, Firdaus gets back to prostitution after a series of disappointments, including one in the man whom she loves. She realises that in the men's society, her body is the object of sexual desire and the source of income. Once a pimp threatens her violently, she attacks him with a knife and kills him.
In the passage that I have chosen for analysis, the themes of female oppression, the female body, prostitution and sex, power, and the patriarchal society may be identified. To begin with, Firdaus finds herself crucified on a bed and accepting a customer every hour as a result of being oppressed and sexually and physically abused by the males whom she encountered before: her husband and a coffee shop owner. On the other hand, even with a secondary education, could she have found a decent job to earn her living? This theme is closely related to those of prostitution/sex and the female body. As a prostitute, Firdaus works virtually non-stop: "In fact, I never left the bedroom (...)" (El Saadawi 57). However, sex does not bring her any satisfaction. Rather, it is a source of disgust, pain, and fatigue: "They dug their long nails into my flesh and I would close my lips tightly trying to stifle any expression of pain, to hold back a scream" (El Saadawi 57) It is also clear that the body no longer belongs to her, nor is she recognized as a human being with her will and wish: "I turned my head away, but they insisted on pulling it back, on burying my nose in the small of their bodies" (El Saadawi 57). This is the fruit of the carefully built patriarchal society where men are in a privileged position. In this society, women are taught that their primary role is to satisfy men and give birth to children (preferably men, too). The inner world of a woman is so neglected and denied that she cannot even turn her head away when the sweat from her customers falls on her face during sexual intercourse. As a woman, the heroine does not have any power in a male's society.
As for the symbols in this passage that may be considered vital for the overall message of the book, these are primarily a bed, body/flesh, paunches, and stagnant water. The bed symbolizes the place of torture for Firdaus, a place where she gets crucified by her oppressors. Her body and her flesh are symbols of her sufferings, because it is through the body that the young woman cannot find herself in the society in any other role rather than an object of sexual desire. Men's paunches are symbols of their authority and privileged position in Egyptian society of the 1970s. In addition, stagnant water symbolizes men's backwardness and lack of morality.
To conclude, the passage analysed above expresses all the major themes within the book. Namely, these are the themes of female oppression, the female body, prostitution and sex, power, and the patriarchal society. Symbolically, the passage creates a picture of female oppression by men and sufferings encountered by one woman who wanted to be free in a deeply prejudiced Muslim society of males and for males.