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In Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi explores the struggles that women face in societies. The protagonist, Firdaus, faces years of discrimination from men throughout the text. The assumed dominance that men take on is shown through their oppressive behavior and the perceived subservience of women is shown through their lack of power. The text follows Firdaus’ journey to break every stereotype set for women and escape the hypocritical, patriarchal society. Saadawi utilizes strict gender roles to highlight how discrimination fuels passion and anger.
The tyrannical role that men play in society demonstrates their ability to manipulate women. When Firdaus was younger, she would play with a little boy in the fields. He would make her lie down and touch her and when he did, “from some part of her body, where exactly she did not know, would come a sensation of sharp pleasure”. She speaks with an ambiguous tone, revealing her inability to understand what is happening to her. She remains passive and allows him to touch “some part” of her body where she “does not know” without hesitation. This demonstrates the prescribed notion that men are allowed to do as they please with women and their bodies. She describes the feeling as a “sharp pleasure”. The juxtaposition of the word “sharp” with “pleasure” demonstrates how the feeling of this boy’s touch is unwanted and painful yet Firdaus convinces herself enjoy it because she has been taught to let men use her at her disposal. The oppressive societal role of men is continually established in Firdaus’s life. After running away from her abusive husband, she looked for guidance in her aunt. Her aunt told her that “it was precisely men well versed in their religion who beat their wives. The precepts of religion permitted such punishment”. The irony of this statement, as those devout to their religion avoid sinful actions, demonstrates the extreme corruption of men. Even those men who dedicate their lives to promoting the Islamic faith use their power in society to manipulate women. They have altered the tenets of religion for their benefit. Because women are susceptible to male power, they believe what men say about religion to be true. This furthers the control that men impose on women in this society. During Firdaus’ prostitute career, she meets a man who questions the respectability of her work. These words have an immediate impact on Firdaus’ mental state. She described the noises in her head to be like “the sound of an angry sea…for everything had become just a series of blows which followed one another like night and day, like her heartbeats racing in a row like a hammer in her head”. The metaphor referencing the sea and “blows” of the wind demonstrate her lack of control. The words that this man spoke to her took over her mind like a storm, resulting because of the unceasing power and manipulation that men impose over women. However, her severe reaction to this statement drove her to a place of passion and anger. The “veil was torn from her eyes” and she began to see “her life in a new way”. The metaphor, relating the removal of an object that obstructs a clear view to her newfound mindset, clearly highlights the shift in Firdaus’ perspective on her position in society. The pestering discrimination that Firdaus faced throughout her life drove her to a place of passion and anger, ultimately seeking change.
The defenseless role that women play in society demonstrates their inability to establish power over men. Firdaus formed a relationship with Bayoumi in which she felt confident and strong. When she told him that she was going to look for a job for herself because he wasn’t, everything changed. He forcefully slapped her and then “a cold shiver, like the shiver of death, went through her body and her hands dropped instinctively to the cover the part on which his gaze was fixed, but his big strong hands moved quickly to jerk them away”. The simile, comparing her feeling in her body to the feeling of death, reveals her instinctive fear of men and her lack of power. The prescribed role of women in society leads them to believe that they cannot defend themselves against men, which is shown through Firdaus’ reaction to Bayoumi’s force. The defenseless tone she uses to describe Bayoumi’s actions highlights her vulnerability. Her descriptors, like “big”, “strong”, “quickly” and “jerk” portray the helpless position that Firdaus is in. To Firdaus, he is bigger, stronger and faster than her, leaving her with no choice but to succumb to his power. To further exert his dominance, Bayoumi took to locking Firdaus in his apartment. She describes feeling as though she was a “dead body with no life in it at all, like a piece of wood, or an empty sock, or a shoe”. The metaphor compares Firdaus to a variety of lifeless objects, all of which have no ability to choose for or defend themselves. Prior to Bayoumi’s shift from kindness to abusiveness, Firdaus felt powerful. Bayoumi, like every other man in the text, could not bear the idea of female power and unmercifully took it away. Firdaus’ inability to establish her own power makes her feel like a “dead body” or a “piece of wood” or anything else that lacks jurisdiction over itself. Once again, Firdaus meets a man who makes her feel powerful and confident. But once again, he manipulates and mistreats her. In the midst of her distress, she describes seeing a “low wall, the height of an average man, built of bare bricks without any plaster”. The image she provides of this “low” wall, compared to the size of an “average man” and built of “bare bricks” without plaster conveys Firdaus discredit of male power. Her whole life she allowed men to use and abuse her, but suddenly she began to realize that men only have power because no one tries to take it away from them, like a brick wall standing without any plaster. Her years of oppression have driven her to a place of frustration resentment and have left her with an aspiration for change.
Firdaus’ futile efforts to establish her power drives her to seek change. Firdaus’ encounter with the pimp marks the shift in her passive lifestyle to an active one, determined to break out of her dictated role in society. After leaving the pimp dead, she is pursued by a prince. When he tried to pay her for her time, she “tore the money to pieces, tore off the veil, the last, remaining veil from before her eyes, to reveal the whole enigma which had puzzled her throughout, the true enigma of her life”. The veil symbolizes modesty and obedience. The metaphor, comparing ripping money to removing the veil, shows the aggression with which she is renouncing the obedience she once gave men. Prior to her shift in mindset, she would have eagerly accepted the money offered to her. Now, she exerts her power by eliminating male dominance in her life. When recounting the murder she committed, she remembers how “the movement of her hand upwards and then downwards destroyed her fear. She realized that it was an easy movement to execute, much easier than she ever thought it could be. Now her hand was no longer incapable of lifting itself high up in the air to land with violence on one of their faces”. The description of the movement of her hand serves as an ambiguity. Like her hand, Firdaus herself is now taking control and overcoming all restrictions in her life. Her ability to use her hand for revenge against abusive man set her free and “destroyed her fear”. She took the power from the man and turned it into her own. In her pursuit to shatter the stereotypes set for her, she learned that “truth is like death in that it kills. When she killed she did it with truth not with a knife”. The metaphor, comparing truth to a knife, highlights the disguised weakness of men. Because their power comes from an intangible place, the truth can take it away. If they lose their power, they lose their purpose and hence, their life. Firdaus recognized this and decided to use the truth to establish her strength. The incessant exploitation that Firdaus faced throughout her life fueled her anger and passion, ultimately pushing her to generate change.
Firdaus experiences years of discrimination from men in her society. The oppressive behavior of men limits women from establishing their own power. The stereotypes allotted to genders in society incite passion and anger.
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