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. 

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo: Of endemic sexism, patriarchy & oppression.

A south-korean woman’s plight seems to mirror that of several women all across the world.

Translated by Jamie Chang

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo is a story chronicling a woman’s desperate attempt at escaping endemic sexism. Kim’s life & her struggle mirror several women of our previous generations, and unfortunately, this generation too. Kim is every little girl who has had to adjust, be more responsible, do chores that her brother of the same age isn’t required to do. She’s every woman starting her career exposed to objectifying, reduced to only menial jobs, whereas men her age, are promoted & considered naturally more competent. She’s every woman who has had to sacrifice her career to raise a child, giving up on her individuality & forced into a life stripped of meaning. 

Kim is a 33-year-old woman who has started behaving differently. She’s taken on the identity of women in her past life, blurting out words considered inappropriate for family gatherings. She’s taken to a psychiatrist who then lays bare Kim’s journey in a linear fashion. 

As the novel progresses, we learn of Jiyoung’s descent into dissociative order. Right from her childhood where boys being mean to her was explained as their likeness towards her to applying for jobs only to be repeatedly rejected to facing workplace sexism. It’s a book that opens up layers and layers of systemic misogyny exposing the hypocrisy and injustice women are expected to endure. Kim’s husband, albeit cognizant of his wife’s predicament, is complicit. He merely refuses to acknowledge his own privilege, shrugging off any attempt at reversing the gender roles. In fact, he easily fits into them.  The subtle nuances in the novel explain the ongoing battle women continue to face, the suffocation and uneasiness slowly crawling in on you as you trace Kim’s road to complete madness. 

Cho Nam-Joo’s brilliant narrative rooted in fiction but peppered with substantial facts (as footnotes) unmasks South-Korea’s gender disparity despite technological advances and developments. For instance, the Huju system where the children were strictly registered under the patriarchal lineage was abolished only in 2008 to female feticide, preference of the boy child to sacrificing one’s career to further that of their brother or husbands are still pretty much a ground reality.  

This book, a culmination of fiction & reality, puts forward the triteness and nefariousness of gender discrimination that seems to share a common ground in every country, inciting collective rage and call to action. 


Author: Cho Nam-Joo

Translation: Jamie Chang

Publisher: Sceptre Books

Pages: 168

Format: Ebook

Blurb:

Kim Jiyoung is a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy.
Kim Jiyoung is a sister made to share a room while her brother gets one of his own.
Kim Jiyoung is a female preyed upon by male teachers at school. Kim Jiyoung is a daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night.  
Kim Jiyoung is a good student who doesn’t get put forward for internships. Kim Jiyoung is a model employee but gets overlooked for promotion. Kim Jiyoung is a wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity.

Kim Jiyoung has started acting strangely.
Kim Jiyoung is depressed.
Kim Jiyoung is mad.

Kim Jiyoung is her own woman.
Kim Jiyoung is every woman

My Past Is A Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani: Identifying as a muslim feminist & dealing with patriarchy

There is gentleness in Zeba’s intimate story; the fragile relationship with her mother, the silences lingering between them, the possessive nature only a child can have for a parent, the way Zeba would want to know her mother’s movement, watching her like a hawk. Zeba grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia but both her parents were from India. This meant spending summer vacations in a small town in Karnataka, going back and forth between Sirsi( her mother’s home) and honnavar, where her dad grew up. In one of the many instances of growing up in a traditional household where the man works and the woman takes charge of domestic work, Zeba’s mother was preparing for a party but accidentally hurt herself. She was in immense pain and Zeba called her father from work. But in the evening, the guests arrived, exotic delicacies were served, the party went on as if nothing happened. The slow unraveling of the roles society has forced upon women was not lost on Zeba. Throughout her memoir, she wonders about the silence that existed in her house, so many instances where her mama resorted to maintaining peace in the family instead of confronting the wrongs. The grip of patriarchy and the unreal societal expectations that continue to suppress women, often leaning towards the adage of men being without reproach. Zeba’s dissent meant a direct insult to motherhood. It was a constant pull and push, where the fear existed between a mother and daughter, further alienating them from each other.

Growing up, the author talks about the differences in her life as compared to India. The moral police restricted the movement of women, where freedom was only a myth and since she was from a South-Asian heritage, she felt like she didn’t belong. Expressing her precarious place in Jeddah meant committing blasphemy & so Zeba kept to herself. When Zeba’s hair started thinning, her mother was appalled. She was taken to several doctors who prescribed myriad remedies, treatments & surgeries. A lot of importance is given to conventional standards of beauty especial in South-Asian communities, as if beauty alone can absolve one of sins. Naturally, the author faced bullying mainly from her relatives who wanted a piece of gossip. Zeba took to wearing her headscarf and didn’t let this define her life. 

In between standing up for herself, and moving to India for her graduation to pursuing MA in publishing in Germany to later moving to UK, Zeba talks about her faith, being a Muslim feminist in a world that’s hell bent on saving ‘Muslim women’, racism, lack of representation and radical selfcare. Throughout the entirety of the novel, Zeba tenderly discusses the ramifications of patriarchy on the generation of our mothers and also the generation that has come after. We’re still reeling from the shackles put in place, often putting each other down, when the problem has never been us. 

I was rooting for Zeba, cheering her on whenever she felt stuck, but I was rooting for her mother too. The silence that stretched between them, ended when her mother spoke for her. It broke so many layers of oppression because one woman decided it would end here. For the many women who have come before us, and the many woman who decided to choose their own path, I hope we continue to find the courage to be ourselves in a world that’s trying hard to stifle our voice. I felt seen, I felt represented, I felt I didn’t need to pander to values I didn’t believe in and for that I’m really grateful to Zeba.

Latest Posts

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb: A therapist, her therapist, and our lives revealed.

In Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, I found my innermost thoughts, buried up until now, resurface and paraded out in the open. The vulnerability of peeling one’s own self in front of a stranger, to have them gently poke through the litany of feelings and to understand that they’re valid and worthy of existing encompass … Continue reading “Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb: A therapist, her therapist, and our lives revealed.”

Loading…

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas: A story of love, art & loss in the midst of political turmoil.

Art connects. Art brings you back from the depths of the earth, shakes you and makes you step outside of your little world, and create something you didn’t think you were capable of. The beauty & power of art is infinite, it’s capacity limitless. It transforms and recreates and gives birth to revolution, to freedom, the ability to defy. Art is all encompassing. 

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas takes us through Pakistan’s tumultuous political scenario between 1969-1979 where power and state sanctioned brutality displaced, killed and tortured thousands of people. While the prolonged civil war and formation of Bangladesh as an independent country took shape, we see the union of two separate individuals belonging to wealthy Karachi family unfold, and how the societal demands and expectations are loaded on Tahira, who ultimately surrenders but finds solace in art; her precious paintings.

From the start, you can feel the bitterness, the uncalled criticism meted out to Tahira by her husband and in-laws. Tahira, a young, educated girl withers away under constant jarbs and marital expectations, realizing with growing contempt that her life has been snatched away, reduced to dust. The only solace given to her by her in-laws was the freedom to paint only because it would add to their status obsessed image. It was infuriating to see Tahira undergo so much trauma, injustice and disrespect at the hands of her in-laws. 

The beauty of this book lies in the creation of other characters who I was equally fond of. We have Tahira’s childhood friend, Andaleep, who encourages her to take up painting with renewed gusto. Always looking after his sister, Waseem, defines masculinity in a new light. He considers himself a socialist distressed by the unfortunate path his country was heading towards. Both Waseem and Andaleep grappled and disappointed by Tahira’s submissiveness distance themselves for fear of losing her completely. 

It’s commendable how Sadia Abbas has encapsulated the internal and external activities of Pakistan and its people, delving into the political and social constraints, of personal and private lives being uprooted, and has brilliantly captured the intimate and most vulnerable of human emotions.