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Women at Point Zero is a novel that tells the story of a prostitute, Firdaus. She is waiting in jail for her death sentence. She experiences sexual harassment which causes her traumas throughout her life in Egypt. The title of the story, Women at Point Zero is an indication of how Firdaus encounters low points in life. It portrays the struggles women faced in Egypt. Poverty, sexual assault and exploitation are major conflicts that she experiences during her life. Violence against women is extensive in Women at Point Zero. Violence is portrayed through sexual violence, domestic violence and forced marriages. The author used vivid imagery when describing the conflicts Firdaus faced in order to tempt a heart-rending response from the reader. There are many institutions responsible for the oppression that women faced in the novel and acts of cruelty against women were portrayed in different ways; oppression can therefore be a major theme in the novel.
The family is a major institution for the oppression that women faced in the novel. Firdaus was taught from a young age that she is not important and that she must follow her parent’s orders. One evidence that female were not important can be seen in the statement, “When one of his female children died, my father would eat his supper, my mother would wash his legs, and then he would go to sleep, just as a he did every night”. This created low self-esteem. She got punished for wrong actions and such punishments usually consisted of harsh beatings and no dinner. The beatings are imageries of abuse and oppression. The punishments described can be clearly visualized by the reader. This is important because it helped in understanding the physical pain that Fidaus experienced. Her father often beat her mother and sometimes he beat her as well. Domestic violence was a major conflict that women faced. Egyptian women had no rights and they had to abide by the laws that men created. The setting of the novel is a major reason why women suffered as a result of poor treatment.
Females were also abusive towards females in the novel as well. In the beginning, her mother started to beat her, “then she brought a woman who was carrying a small knife or maybe a razor blade. They cut off a piece of flesh from between my thighs”. This is another imagery created by the writer to express the physical torment women faced. The imagery of cutting off flesh is disturbing but yet relevant to describe the brutality that the women experienced. Prior to the brutal act of female genital mutilation, Firdaus was able to feel sexual pleasure by touching the clitoris. As Firdaus grows into maturity, the pre-circumcision pleasure is lost. This was a major conflict in the story; because of the mutilation, Firdaus had suffered her entire life. This conflict caused not just physical pain but also psychological trauma. Her experiences in such a setting where men are highly favoured have caused her to live a defeated submissive life. Her life in her parent’s house depicted an image of a gloomy setting where unhappiness and malice is present at all times.
Men are the major reason why women faced oppression in the novel. The roles of women in Egypt displayed the privilege that men possessed to abuse women. Egypt is a place that did not have any regard for women and this setting contributed to female oppression. Women in Egypt were not working. They had to cook, clean, take care of the children and they did not attend school. This showed an imagery of hardship and suffering as a result of oppression. They did not choose who to marry or made any major decisions for the family. They were often beaten by the male figure of their family. “All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived”. This was another conflict that the women faced. For Firdaus, men from all around eventually became a threat. Her father, for example, was a cruel and barbaric person who frequently beat his wife and made her “bite the dust each night”. When one of the young sisters of Firdaus dies in infancy, her father showed no and he “would beat my mother”. Even while being a prostitute, Fidaus believed she is not doing what she wants but rather what men wants. “I knew that my profession had been invented by men, and that men were in control of both our worlds”.
Violence against women was common in the novel, and again, the institution that contributed to this was the family. According to El Saadawi in Women at Point Zero, she described the sexual assault faced by Firdaus from her uncle, “My uncle’s great long fingers would draw close to me…his lips would touch my face and press down on my lips, then his fingers would feel their way slowly upward over my thighs”. This created a vivid imagery of rape in which a female is suffering. This event caused her to live a struggling life which is a major conflict in the novel. Her very own family member assaulted her and caused her to be a victim of oppression. Firdaus’s uncle was a major factor why she lived a low, depressed and oppressed life. Because of him assaulting her, she had genital mutilation without her permission and she was no longer able to experiences sexual pleasures. Men were able to treat women without respect in Egypt as seen in this instance where he assaulted his niece. The family institution was responsible for women’s oppression in Egypt.
Friendship is a social institution also responsible for the way women were oppressed in the novel. Firdaus left the patriarchal family and went into the streets where she met Bayoumi. He befriends her, but he did not really care about her. He locked her up and forced her to become a prostitute. Being locked up created an imagery of someone who has no freedom. It showed that Firdaus was in physical and emotional turmoil. He made her sell her body without giving her a choice. With her struggles, she had no other choice but to comply. She was in a vulnerable position with no one to help her; not even her family because even they oppressed her. This caused her to become a victim of oppression as she faced many conflicts such as poverty and lack of autonomy. Bayoumi displayed an act of domination and exploitation and women suffered tremendously under the rule of men in the Middle East. A patriarchal setting discriminates the right of a woman to make choices. The settings of the novel are in the Middle East where men were superior. The settings contributed to the oppression that Firdaus faced from Bayoumi. This is because no rights were given to women in that period of time.
Government institutions are also responsible for women living in oppression and a major conflict in the novel was the inability for a woman to improve herself in life. Living in Egypt meant that women had no rights and therefore could not be advanced in any way. This meant that women were to remain poor, uneducated and lack freedom. Government supported this because no laws were implemented for women to have liberty. Instead, when a woman wanted to advance socially or financially, she was looked down on and abused. However, in Firdaus’ case, she struggled for a different life. She eventually broke free of all ties with her pimp and started a prosperous life as an independent prostitute. She exploited her body to become financially stable and independent. “I now knew that all of us were prostitutes who sold themselves at varying prices, and that an expensive prostitute was better than a cheap one”. The imagery of prostitution showed that women are valuable only for sex and they are inferior for everything else. This showed that women had to be physically exploited in order to improve their state of living. Women’s financial independence was seen as a mean of selling themselves. This line of work continued to be oppressive and demeaning to Firdaus and Governmental institutions are to blame because they had zero women rights in Egypt at that point in time.
Even the workplace is an institution for women’s oppression. After being a prostitute, Firdaus goes to work in a low wage job at an unspecified business. In the workplace she was verbally abused and there were many conflicts within the workplace. Not only does she have her heart broken by another employee at this job, she also realizes the freedom she had as a prostitute. One example of this was seen in this line, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us”. Firdaus felt hopeless about the constant abuse that she faced on a daily basis from all around her. She wished to be liberated from the society that treated women as though they were dirt. Even when she did manage to get a job, hoping that she would see the light, she was more unhappy and oppressed.
Firdaus faced abuse from her family, male figures, the workplace and even the laws against women rights. She started of her life off in sexual abuse from her uncle and domestic violence from her father. She was forced to play by the rules without retaliating in the patriarchy society. Men rule over women and from her experiences of violence, she turned to prostitution. Her life was filled with traumas and suffering due to several conflicts that she faced. She was robbed of an education and because of this suffered in poverty. Many institutions were responsible for women living in oppression. The male figures in her life such as her uncle, sexually abused her at a young age causing her to become oppressed. Her father was physically abusive towards her and her mother. He was a dominant figure and the women were expected to be submissive. Firdaus even wanted to break the barriers and find a job but she was also abuse in the workplace. The laws of the land did not protect women or give them any rights. Instead, the patriarchal society caused them to live in oppression. The settings of the novel also contributed to women’s oppression because they the land did not protect women but instead exploited them.
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