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In both A Doll’s House and Woman at Point Zero, the female protagonists are forced to suppress their identities. Henrik Ibsen and Nawal El-Saadawi hide the individualities of Nora and Firdaus in their play and novel respectively from the other characters, however, the audience are able to see the characters fulfilling the expected gender stereotype of the societies they lived in through lies and deceit to keep their identities concealed. Nora and Torvald’s relationship was typical in a Norwegian upper-middle class home in the late 19th Century. A married woman’s primary role in Norway during the 1800s was being subservient to her husband. Influenced by her own experiences in the Qanatir prison as a psychiatrist El-Saadawi questions age-old traditions in Egypt during the 1900s that dehumanise women. The novel portrays Firdaus, who is subjected to patriarchal oppression as the victim of financial, mental and physical abuse and is forced to live by conforming to a controlling masculine society. Although Woman at Point Zero and A Doll’s house are different genres, and take place in two different cultures one hundred years apart, they share the theme of mistreatment of women in society and women having to conceal their authentic identities to survive.
Similar to women of the Victorian era, Nora is not her own person, but the person that Torvald and other members of society expect her to be; her true self is hidden underneath the façade she constructs to adhere to societal expectations. Correspondingly, in Woman at Point Zero Firdaus is treated immorally throughout the novel, due to societal expectations in Egypt during the 1900s. Ibsen and El-Saadawi present Nora and Firdaus’s characters with disguises. Nora’s character is exhibited as childish, irrational and naïve until she reveals her true character. This is indicated when Ibsen uses zoomorphism to exhibit Torvald’s manipulation of Nora. Torvald dehumanises her by using pet names such as “squirrel”, “skylark” and “songbird”. The animals described all imply Torvald’s disrespect and disregard, as they are small, weak and powerless, however, the irony being that while squirrels are weaker, they are particularly cleverer than most, as they hide their food away for survival, as Nora hides her macaroons, and ultimately, her individuality. Secondly, Torvald empowers his role in their relationship by belittling Nora using condescending language such as “my little Nora”, “is that my little squirrel bustling about”. Torvald’s use of the possessive adjective ‘my’ defines her inferiority in their relationship. Ibsen gives some justification for her ‘pet names’ and allows the audience to believe that Torvald has an accurate assessment of Nora, the audience as a result judges her actions and it makes them accomplices. Many commentators such as Ibsen’s biographer had a similar perspective on Nora’s character “she is denounced as an irrational and frivolous narcissist; an abnormal woman, a hysteric; a vain, unloving egoist who abandons her family in a paroxysm of selfishness”.
In 1879, when the realistic play was first performed it shocked conventional morality. Women were not allowed to share their own opinions and ideas, demonstrating the societal pressure on women to conceal their individual differences. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that the two stereotypes of women created by men are “the angel in the house”, being the devoted, submissive wife, and “the madwoman in the attic”, being the unconventional woman, who did not seek the approval of a man. This concept is utilised within El-Saadawi’s text; “A virtuous woman was not supposed to complain about her husband”, as it was clear that a woman was compelled into keeping her thoughts to herself, ‘supposed’ suggesting that women had an obligation to comply with their husband’s opinions. Additionally, the adjective ‘virtuous’ further insinuates that if women were to fight for their rights they were not religious and pure, however the irony being that Firdaus’s own husband raped her but nobody questioned if he was virtuous, again reinforcing the bias approach of the late 1900s, that favoured men, and dismissed the existence of women.
Additionally, in A Doll’s House, Society looked upon women as being unfavourable in comparison to men, thus why they strived to hide their individualities. Ibsen showcases the arrogance and crudity women were expected to endure due to their unrespected role in society by exposing the undeniable sexist nature of men at the time through Torvald’s notorious “how like a woman” attitude for Nora, regarding her as a typical domesticated woman with no real opinion. Ibsen broadcasts how contradictory sexism is through A Doll’s House. “You know I could never act against your wishes.” Nora is expected to follow Torvald’s commands, to the extent where she is banned from purchasing a macaroon for herself, as Torvald deemed it to be not in her best interest. Firdaus believed that her “duty was perfect obedience” to her husband, similar to Nora, when she neglected to tell the truth to Torvald. Ironically, ‘Firdaus’ means ‘paradise’ in Arabic, which has the implications of heaven on earth, nevertheless the reality being that her life was a living hell. Women were “slaves” to the men in their lives, and the domestic abuse women suffered was ignored. Subsequently Firdaus’s husband struck her “with his heavy stick until the blood ran”. The adjective ‘heavy’ emphasises the brutality of the action, performed by the phallic stick added to the fact that she was herself a sexual subject of men as a prostitute. Furthermore, the verb ‘ran’ indicates a large quantity of blood and so emphasizes the destructive act. The inhumane description emphasises the brutal living conditions that Firdaus was confined to, and enlightens the audience on her fear, at being treated as the ‘madwoman in the attic’. El-Saadawi deliberately presents the brutal behaviour of men towards women in the bleak patriarchal society, to show that this forced women to suppress their unique personalities under a religious and emotional veil.
The female protagonists in the two texts did not support each other, Firdaus’s mother went through the intense nature of being suppressed by men and allowed her own daughter to face the same pain instead of supporting her. Not only did her mother beat her, she also allowed a woman to “cut off a piece of flesh from between” Firdaus’s thighs. The imagery is indicative of a consumptive act and the clear use of the noun ‘flesh’ is implicit of meat. The phrase ‘a piece of flesh’ implies that the act is common placed and easily disregarded; however, the reader is conscious that this ‘piece’ that is removed is fundamental to preventing the woman from enjoying sexual acts as such the female subject is merely the object of sexual act and not the participant. El-Saadawi is also suggesting the barbaric ritual is a form of taking away a part of a person which she herself was subjected to. At this point in time, genital mutilation was an orthodox ritual for those following islamic religion at the time in Egypt. El-Saadawi adduces through her non-fiction novel The Hidden Face of Eve that the use of religion as “an instrument of fear, oppression and exploitation” are “the reasons for the low status of women” in the majority of Islamic and Arab societies. Throughout Woman at Point Zero religion is strongly associated with patriarchy and the exploitation of power. Obioma Nnaemeka believes that “Abuse of the female body is global”, woman are not treated as humans but as pets, this level of abuse can cause long lasting hysteria in a woman’s life suggested by Freudian theory. A similar theme of women not supporting women is in A Doll’s House between the two characters of Kristine and Nora. Typically, women, when married were expected to only be housewives and mothers who charitably dedicated themselves to serve their husbands and families. Kristine abandoned her love with Krogstad to marry a man with a stable income to support her own family, their relationship failed “simply for money”. It was as if money ruled relationships and the society itself. Love is a modern construct, economic gain was the primary purpose for marriage. In the late 19th Century Norway had just had a great economic boom and a chance for prosperity for the upper middle class. Ibsen portrays his firsthand observations in A Doll’s House through the obsession with money and increased stress for Torvald to keep his “bourgeois respectability”. It could be said that Kristine likewise followed a Marxist perspective in life, as her limited choices were a result of her economic situation. Nora’s father financed her needs as a child and then Torvald took over the responsibility, Nora was always in debt to the men in her life. Kristine automatically assumes that as Nora was always financially supported that she understands “little of the worries and hardships of life”. Further suggesting that financial problems are the only ones that cause disturbance in one’s life. In order to survive, Firdaus was pushed into the prostitution industry by her supposed friend Sharifa, she knew how women were taken advantage of by men, however instead of supporting her friend, she extorted her. ‘A woman is a woman’s greatest enemy”, this common phrase is proven through the relationships between women in Woman at Point Zero, though not only the relationship between Firdaus and her mother, but also Firdaus and Sharifa.
Firdaus had never before made an independent choice, even a small choice such as choosing between preferring “oranges or tangerines” to her surprise. When Bayoumi asks Firdaus what she prefers she realises that this is the first time someone had asked her opinion. This is the starting point from where Firdaus learns that she has self-worth and is entitled to her own opinion and conscious choices. This is similar to when Nora felt working and earning money “was like being a man” her realisation that men have the power she craves. El-Saadawi the feminine icon and activist said that “all women are prostitutes of one kind or another”. Women either sold themselves to their husbands for life amenities, or became prostitutes and earnt money to survive independently. They were required at the time to get a position in society to live, Firdaus was obligated to find any means necessary to survive, so when she got an opportunity from Sharifa she simply could not afford to refuse. “I would rather be a free prostitute than an enslaved wife”. The verb “enslaved” insinuates that Firdaus felt that wives are held captive in marriages, that being married was far worse than being a prostitute. Most of the women in the novel are treated as servants and are “enslaved” by the men in their lives. Firdaus’s mother was dominated by Firduas’s father and Firdaus was oppressed by her father, husband and other men on the journey with the end result of her imprisonment and the men who tortured her allowed to roam in the world as free men. Nora’s submissive nature towards Torvald up until the development of the play is a result of her observation that it would be “painful and humiliating” for him to find out she took out a loan to support him. The irony being she still believes that they share “mutual relations”, she is unable to confront the truth until she realises she was Torvald’s “doll wife” all along. Ibsen
The central metaphor of the entire play is that Nora is Torvalds doll living in his “doll’s house”. Ibsen was far ahead of the era when creating Nora’s character. No longer willing to sacrifice her freedom for a relationship with a man who “just thought it was fun to be in love” to mirror his likes and dislikes Nora chooses to go against cultural norms and leave her family to establish her own identity. Additionally, the final conversation between Nora and Torvald shows a reverse of roles. “I have been performing tricks for you, Torvald” Unlike the previous “heedless child” dialogues Nora’s tone changes once she realises her “doll-wife” role. Her commanding language shows that unlike women in the 1900s Nora understands finally that she could have her own life. “I was the only woman who had torn the mask away, and exposed the face of their ugly reality” El-Saadawi uses the disguise to ‘mask away’ Firdaus’s true identity so that she can earn money to survive, Firdaus herself exposes the true reality of women being seen as the weaker sex using her true identity. The metaphor of the overall disguise is uncovered when Firdaus removes her own disguise and murders a man, this murder symbolises Firdaus’s gain of independence and gain of justice for the horrors she was put through. Firdaus’s character resembles Lemona’s in Lemona’s Tale, both novels based in Africa where in both the protagonist “is a woman convicted of murder”. This shows that the patriarchal abuse was not limited to Egypt, that women were suppressed into concealing their thoughts throughout Africa in the late 1900s. The key noun here being ‘woman’ suggestive of the fact that both characters were wrongly persecuted. Although Firdaus in fact murdered “the pimp” it was as a consequence of the multiple times he raped and beat her, no one pointed a finger at the man who tormented the women but they were fast to judge a woman’s actions. Under the circumstances, Nora leaving her family to find herself was atypical in the era, alternatively Firdaus being charged with the death sentence was typical for a woman in Egypt going against societal expectations in the 1900s. Suggesting that if women wanted to escape the patriarchal abuse in either texts they had to either die or leave the household.
To conclude, A Doll’s House was based “loosely on the life of Laura Kieler” by basing the novel on Ibsen’s friends life gives a realistic insight of the expectations in Victorian era in Norway. This shows that the male chauvinist attitude forced women at the time to conceal their opinions and personalities in order to sustain their lives. Similarly, El-Saadawi wrote Woman at Point Zero to show that the female gender was not only exploited but socially, sexually, and culturally coerced in the Arabic society of Egypt in the late 1900s.
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