How I found this book: One of the interesting and unexpected things about having a blog is that WordPress tells me the Google searches that lead people to my blog. Unfortunately, for some reason the search terms that show up are rarely very relevant to the content of my blog. A case in point- a while ago the search term “compare breath eyes memory woman at point zero” popped up. I had reviewed Breath, Eyes, Memory so this was at least vaguely relevant, but I didn’t even know what “woman at point zero” was. I looked it up and it turned out to be a short feminist novel written by an Egyptian woman in the 1970s.
Woman at Point Zero is the tale of Firdaus, a woman on death row for killing a man. There is an interesting preface by the author, which explains that the novel is based on a woman she met while visiting an Egyptian prison as a doctor. Ironically, Nawal El Saadawi herself was later jailed in the same prison as a result of her political views.
Early on I found the book a bit heavy-handed as everything bad that could possibly happen to a woman seemed to happen to Firdaus in quick succession- molestation, female circumcision, spousal abuse, prostitution, not to mention general disrespect as a women. The book is so short, just over 100 pages, that this all happened too quickly without the chance for Firdaus to develop as a character. As I got further into the book though, I came to recognize that the book is a political statement as much as it is a novel. Somehow, seeing it this way helped my to enjoy the book much more.
Woman at Point Zero makes the rather radical argument that Firdaus is better off as a prostitute (so long as she is able to work independently) than in following any of her other options. I don’t think that this is meant to indicate that prostitution is such a great option, but rather that all of her other options are even worse. While I may not agree with the conclusion that prostitution is her best option, it is striking that Firdaus’s position in society was so bad a plausible argument for it can be made.
What really made this book worthwhile for me was the scene when Firdaus first receives money in exchange for sex. This, unexpectedly, is a moment of empowerment for her. This is the first time in her life that she has money of her own. She had been a prostitute before, but the money was always taken by the man or woman controlling her. Before that she had always been dependent on her family or her husband. Firdaus takes the money she has earned and uses some of it to buy food for herself in a restaurant. For the first time in her life, she is able to eat as much as she wants without someone watching her plate and begrudging the cost of her food. Having money gives her a new-found feeling of power and she walks down the street with her head held high.