Writer/playwright/activist/psychiatrist Nawal El Saadawi is one of those women who seem to scare men – especially those who purport to have something called ‘authority.’ She’s been fired, banned, accused, threatened, imprisoned because of what is ultimately her simple belief that all women are worthy human beings deserving respect and equality.
The Egyptian-born El Saadawi writes in Arabic; her husband, Sherif Hatata, who is also a novelist and doctor, has translated a number El Saadawi’s works (and his own) into English. The prolific El Saadawi with dozens of title to her name, has written six memoirs thus far; she wrote her first from a jail cell on a roll of toilet paper and a smuggled-in eyebrow pencil, aptly published as Memoirs from the Women’s Prison.
Prison looms large in Woman at Point Zero, considered to be El Saadawi’s best-known novel internationally. While conducting research on neurosis in Egyptian women in the early 1970s, El Saadawi made regular visits to hospitals and outpatient clinics, but she was especially interested in “what prison life was like, especially for women,” she reveals in the book’s 1983 preface. “Perhaps this was because I lived in a country [Egypt] where many prominent intellectuals around me had spent various periods of time in prison for ‘political offences,'” including her own husband. “Little did I know that one day I would step through the same gates, not as a psychiatrist, but as a prisoner arrested with 1,035 others under the decree issued by Sadat on 5 September 1981 [which called for the imprisonment of all opposition activists].”
“This is the story of a real woman,” the novel begins. That woman whom El Saadawi met almost four decades ago was called Firdaus. It is the night before Firdaus’ execution for having committed murder. And throughout the night, Firdaus reveals her story.
“Let me speak. Do not interrupt me,” Firdaus insists – most of her life has been spent unheard and unseen as a thinking, feeling human being. Born to peasant parents, she is eventually raised by an uncle who takes her to Cairo, who recognizes her intellect, who sends her to school, but who also thinks nothing of treating her as a sexual plaything. He marries her off to a decrepit old man, who in turn violently abuses the still teenage Firdaus. She escapes, only to be lured into one abusive relationship after another. Her attempt to live a ‘respectful’ life ends with a betrayed, broken heart, and she re-invents herself as a highly-paid, sought-after, seemingly independent prostitute … at least for a short time.
Firdaus speaks without remorse, without pity. She recognizes that death is the only escape from her debased, shattered life. In spite of her devotion to learning and knowledge – as soon as she has the financial means, she enshrines her love of books in a library room she does not allow any others to enter – she cannot escape the oppressive cycles of power and abuse.
“This woman,” writes El Saadawi, “… evoked .. a need to challenge and to overcome those forces that deprive human beings of their right to live, to love and to real freedom.” That is what makes too many so-called ‘authorities’ afraid. Almost a half-century since her encounter with Firdaus, even as she approaches the age of 80, El Saadawi continues her fight for women’s freedom. Her books continue to provide remarkable testimony … as well as the not-to-be-ignored call to join in.
Published: 1975; 2007 (latest English edition)