Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 3,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero. Image from NearSt.

Long before Twitter and the #MeToo movement, there was Firdaus, a sex worker who was on death row for murdering her pimp. Her story, narrated to and chronicled by Egyptian feminist author Nawal El Sadaawi in the first-person biography-novel Woman at Point Zero, remains perennially relevant in its unflinching rendering of ways men have and continue to perpetrate violence against women. Although published in 1975 and set in Egypt, the abuses detailed in Woman at Point Zero aren’t unique, bearing an eerie similarity to those allegedly committed by Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Tariq Ramadan, Woody Allen, and Donald Trump, among others. “What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality,” Firdaus says of dominant men. “A never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power.”

Her story begins in a small Egyptian village. She describes her father as a man who knows how to “beat his wife and make her bite the dust at night,” and has no scruples indulging his stomach while his famished children look on. “One evening I dared to stretch out my hand to his plate, but he struck me a sharp blow over the back of my hand,” Firdaus recounts. “I was so hungry that I could not cry.”

The first in a string of men to violate Firdaus is her uncle, who would later declare himself “a respected Sheikh and man of religion,” and sneer at the thought of sending Firdaus to university “where she’ll be sitting side by side with men.” Ironically, the abuse happens after Firdaus’ mother stops sending her to the fields and has her genital mutilated to ensure her chastity.

Following her parents’ demise, Firdaus moves with her uncle to Cairo, where she falls in love with school and imagines becoming a lawyer, judge, doctor or a Head of State despite knowing “women didn’t become heads of state.” Her dream, however, is truncated when her uncle and his wife decide to marry her off to an old Sheikh with a festering facial sore that smells like “dead dogs.”

Married life is an insufferable dungeon replete with beatings and verbal abuse. But when Firdaus tries to seek refuge in her uncle’s house, he bluntly informs her that all men beat their wives, with his wife adding that virtuous women ought to obey and not complain about their husbands.

Firdaus doesn’t return to her uncle’s when her husband assaults her again, fleeing instead to the streets where she finds nothing but an endless sea of harassments, injustices and ne’er do wells. The first man to “put me before himself” imprisons her as a sex slave; a policeman forces her to have sex with him after threatening to arrest her for prostitution, and men on buses press their genitals against her. Before long, prompted by an encounter with a madam and a stranger, she embarks on a career as a prostitute.

Wealth, independence, a library filled with books and a personal cook—Firdaus has them all until a pimp insists on profiting from her earnings. “Every prostitute has a pimp to protect her from other pimps, and from the police,” Marzouk says to her. “That’s what I’m going to do.”

Firdaus tries to get help from the justice system but soon realises that Marzouk has better connections than she does and the “law punishes women like me, but turns a blind eye to what men do.” Her biggest adversaries, she concludes, are men who perform chivalry, dishing advice on how to save her from herself but doing nothing when men like her husband maltreat her.

In the end, Firdaus is a woman fed up with the brazen crassness of entitled men and the patriarchy that upholds them. So fed up is she that death becomes a more comforting alternative to a commutation. In fact, she is unrepentant, defiant and stoic to the end, telling the police, “If I go out once again to the life which is yours, I’ll never stop killing [men]. So what is the use of my sending an appeal to the President to be pardoned?”

With each chapter, paragraph and sentence, one anxiously awaits the moment when Firdaus catches a break from the pounding blows of the misogynistic world she inhabits. But then again, no woman, regardless of her social status, religion, ethnicity or nationality, ever catches a break from leery stares, crude comments or unwanted physical contact. It’s the sad and perpetually cruel, unsafe and demeaning existence women have to tolerate and grapple with until they don’t. Until they can’t. Until they become that woman at point zero.



About the Author:

SHAYERA DARK is a writer whose work has appeared in publications that include AFREADA, Al-Jazeera, Okay Africa, Harper’s Magazine and aKoma. She is working on her debut novel.

Tags: , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."


New Collection of Plays Shines Light on African Women Playwright

Contemporary Plays by African Women

There are many literary projects making a difference in the way we read and talk about African literature. One of […]

Chibundu Onuzo is Coming to America! | See All the Dates

chibundu onuzo

US-based fans of Chibundu Onuzo are in luck. Her critically acclaimed second novel Welcome to Lagos will officially be released in […]

“I Pushed His Hand Away…Gently”: Chimamanda Adichie on Being Sexually Harassed at 17

adichie dior 2

At the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality, held 15-17 April, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about “a powerful man in the […]

Poet Nacima Qorane Sentenced to Jail in Somaliland for Advocating for a Reunified Somalia

nacima qorane

A court in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland has sentenced poet Nacima Qorane to three years in jail for her […]

Brittle Paper Deputy Editor Otosirieze Obi-Young Signs with Booker Prize-Famed Literary Agency

otosirieze obi-young

Brittle Paper’s Deputy Editor Otosirieze Obi-young has joined the client list of David Godwin Associates (DGA), the same agency representing […]

Agwaetiti Obiụtọ | Watch the Trailer of Onyeka Nwelue’s Riveting New Film

onyeka nwelue - bella naija

Nigerian writer Onyeka Nwelue has a new film out. Agwaetiti Obiụtọ, an Igbo language feature, is a satire focused on the lives […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.