Woman At Point Zero by Nawal El Sadawi: A powerful read about resistance, toxic patriarchy, and oppression.

When psychiatrist, Nawal El Sadwai, visits Qanatir prison in Egypt while conducting research into the neurosis of Egyptian women, she hears about Firdaus, a prisoner who is unlike any other inmates.

It’s my fourth attempt at writing a review for this book. How do I even describe, let alone give my two cents about a story that’s as real as the sky, a story that discusses systemic oppression, the poison that is patriarchy, and how women continue to suffer at the hands of men who they put their trust in?

When psychiatrist, Nawal El Sadwai, visits Qanatir prison in Egypt while conducting research into the neurosis of Egyptian women, she hears about Firdaus, a prisoner who is unlike any other inmates. She does not want forgiveness, nor has she spoken to anyone. She has been accused of murder & is sentenced to die. Despite several attempts, Firdaus refuses to see Nawal. But then one day, the silence lifts as Firdaus calls for her. Here begins a long narration into a life of betrayals, torture, sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle, the man she fell in love with, and every other man that came after. Firdaus begins her story from the start. Born into a poor family, and a father who was no less than a tyrant, Firdaus barely had one meal a day. Her mother was abused, beaten brutally, & starved for the most part, just like her children. Woman At Point Zero is a difficult read, not in terms of how its written, but what it portrays—women at the mercy of men, living & breathing at their command, left when they no longer serve their purpose. It hits hard because the reality isn’t very far from it. A particular scene from the book, for some reason, is etched in my mind, clear as a painting. When Firdaus was young, food was scarce. Her father would come home at night and demand the food be given to him irrespective of whether there was enough for the rest of the family. The children would sit around him staring as he put large pieces of food in his mouth, looking directly at them, and eating while the children starved. He would wipe off the tiniest bits from his plate and go off to sleep. It broke my heart, just like several other instances. 

Firdaus, swung like a pendulum, exploited by those who took pleasure enabled by the skewed power dynamics, socio-economic disparity & because they could. She was married off to a man much older than her, who sexually abused her, kept an eye on everything she did, and beat her whenever he felt like. Firdaus ran away only to end up being betrayed by another man. Fate led her to finally be at peace with herself but it was short-lived. 

This work of creative non-fiction, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata is a powerful read about resistance, systemic oppression, gender disparity & lack of autonomy given to women. 

My only issue with the book was the translation. There were a lot of repetitions, even though I understand, creative liberty was at the forefront, it still didn’t seem like it fit into the narrative. 

Author: Shumaila Taher

I am Shumaila Taher, editor and writer. I exist in between the pages of a book.

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