Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

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Injustice is a characteristic of human civilization that historically forms it, even despite its largely destructive power that ravages global society for millennia. For thousands of years, people were forced to give up their possessions, culture, and even self-identity simply because for who they were and merely because somebody else thought they were stronger. Perhaps, one of the plainest examples of societal injustice is women. Women could not identify themselves the way the saw fit since the ancient times and were often forced to be subject to men. In her 1977 novel Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi brings the subject of self-identity of women as well as injustice inflicted upon them in a rather radical and straightforward fashion. Essentially, the author points out that the true power lies upon an ability of a woman to be oneself in all aspects, even if it brings lethal consequences.

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Standing for Oneself: A Lesson from a Prison Inmate

The narrative of Woman at Point Zero is, essentially, a story within a story told by a prison inmate Firdaus sentenced to execution, to the fictional version of Nawal El Saadawi, the author of the novel. In the beginning of the story, El Saadawi, a psychiatrist, arrives at the Qanatir prison to conduct a research on inmates. There, she finds out about a remarkable inmate named Firdaus who is sentenced to execution for killing a man. Firdaus grasps El Saadawi’s interest by refusing to speak with her and generally not being a typical murderer taken to prison, she did not eat or sleep much and did not communicate with anyone whatsoever. The day before her execution, however, Firdaus asks the psychiatrist to listen to her life story, which fascinates and thrills El Saadawi even more (El Saadawi 5-6). By letting Firdaus decide when she wishes to speak to somebody at all, the author foreshadows the main theme of freedom and self-identity. As the story of the prisoner is revealed, it becomes clear that only by being oneself, one can be free, and justice can only be provided by letting others be themselves.

As El Saadawi arrives at Firdaus’ cell, she is told to sit on the floor and listen carefully to the prisoner’s life story. The story of Firdaus’ life involves a vast amount of violence, injustice, and crude imagery, including physical and sexual abuse as well as female genital mutilation applied to Firdaus at an early age. Throughout the narrative, the prisoner tells that she has been severely beaten by a number of men, including her father, arranged husband, and countless pimps when as she worked as a prostitute. Firdaus, however, points out that only by being a freelance prostitute, she felt herself free. At this point, she provides that power relies in possessing something that others do not. And rejection of it to others provides that power of a person over another. Firdaus provided an example that men cannot “stand being refused by a woman,” especially a prostitute. However, as she repeatedly refused them sex, men would pay her much higher prices in order not to feel defeated. To Firdaus, this proved “how essentially hollow they are inside, despite the impression of greatness” they might create (97-98). This brings up a parallel of women being oppressed by men. By rejecting basic freedoms, men often take power over women and let them suffer anything else just for those basic freedoms. In this passage, El Saadawi essentially provides the concept of injustice.

Despite the end of the story being quite tragic, El Saadawi implies that what she had learned from Firdaus is refreshing and thought-provoking. As Firdaus is led out of her cell to her execution, the psychiatrist felt how Firdaus’ courage and willingness to die, in fact, spread “fear wherever it went, the fear of the truth which kills, […], as savage, and as simple, and as awesome as death, yet as simple and as gentle as a child that has not yet learnt to lie” (114). Firdaus went to death willingly because she did so while remaining herself, with nobody having any real power over her. She would be deprived of her life, however, her right to be herself could never be taken from her. This is a theme central to many African and Muslim feminist works, with a number of authors advocating women’s rights and providing that women can only feel free when they are allowed to be themselves (Ourodima 129-130). Finally, during the last passages of her novel, El Saadawi transmits her understanding of the concepts of self-identity and justice.


Woman at Point Zero is one of the plainest feminist stories conveying a narrative of societal justice and self-identification. While telling a story of a woman, El Saadawi manages to cement the universal concept of justice in human society. Essentially, the author provides that self-identity and realization are true freedoms, and those who deprive others of those freedoms do the greatest injustice, reflecting their own hollowness and lack of power. Understanding those freedoms and depriving others of their ability to take them away makes all offenders powerless.

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Works Cited

El Saadawi, Nawal. Woman at Point Zero. Zed Books, 2007.

Ouarodima, Maina. “The Cost of Being a Woman: An Analysis of Nawal El Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero.” International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Literature, vol. 7, no. 4, 4 Apr. 2019, pp. 129–140.

June 07, 2022
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