Themes in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero

Some of the themes I have identified in Woman at Point Zero include betrayal, religion, self-worth, fear, eyes, among many others.

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Woman at Point Zero
Woman at Point Zero
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In this blog post, I am going to discuss the themes in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero. Some of the themes I have identified in Woman at Point Zero include betrayal, religion, self-worth, fear, eyes, and dependence versus Independence. Beneath these themes lie other sub-themes like women oppression and patriarchy.

Theme of Eyes

The aphorism “the eyes are a window to the soul” is a phrase to bear in mind when reading Woman at Point Zero. Eyes are central to Saadawi’s characterisation of key players in the novel. This is apparent early on in the novel when Firdaus compares her birth mother to her stepmother. Firdaus’ mother had eyes that looked like “sunlight was pouring into them from some magical source,” whereas the eyes of Firdaus’ stepmother never had light in them. Firdaus likens them to extinguished lamps, dull and impervious (Page 46). Here, eyes are used as a system of comparing and contrasting Firdaus’ close relationship with her mother to her strained relationship with her stepmother.

Later on in the novel, Saadawi’s uses eyes to describe Bayoumi’s transformation from Firdaus’ rescuer to her rapist. At first, Bayoumi’s eyes are calm and resigned, not at all the eyes of a violent man. When Firdaus tries to leave Bayoumi’s apartment to find work, the man and his eyes morph. Gone is the almost submissive man with his calm eyes. In his place is a violent brute with lecherous, jet-black eyes who beats and rapes Firdaus. Firdaus notes that she doesn’t remember seeing Bayoumi’s eyes like this before, suggesting that the change in eyes mirrors the change in behaviour.

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Theme of Betrayal

A core thread running through all of Firdaus’ relationships is the element of betrayal. Each person, whom Firdaus trusts or loves, betrays her in some way.

Her uncle, a childhood hero, molests her and eventually chooses his new wife and family over her. Her husband, Sheikh Mahmoud, beats her and causes her to run away from their home and become a streetwalker.

Bayoumi, the kind man who saves her from the streets, does a complete reversal when Firdaus tries to exert her independence. He imprisons her, beats her, rapes her, and allows his friends to rape her as well.

Sharifa saves her yet again, but in the end, she uses Firdaus’ body for her own financial gain. Finally, Firdaus meets the love of her life in the form of Ibrahim, only for him to betray her too and marry another woman.

Theme of Religion

Religion is a lurking specter in the novel. It is one of the notable themes in Woman at Point Zero. Our heroine is not explicitly religious, and yet she frequently alludes to Allah, the Quran, and various aspects of Islam. Though Firdaus isn’t devout, she understands that religion is an important force in the lives of the people around her.

Firdaus points out hypocrisy within the faith, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of women. The first example of this happens with Firdaus’s father. When he walks back from the Imam’s prayer, he and his friends comment on the validity of the sermon and how “verily true” it is that stealing and defaming the honor of a woman are sins (Page 36). And yet, Firdaus slyly points out that her father steals crops from neighbouring fields and exchanged his virgin daughter for a dowry (Page 35). Firdaus never calls her father a hypocrite outright: she just offers these two facts to readers and allows us to make our own judgments.

Another example of religion’s importance is when Firdaus flees Sheikh Mahmoud’s house after he beats her. She returns to her uncle’s household, only for her uncle and aunt to say that all husbands beat their wives. When Firdaus pushes back, claiming that men well versed in the teachings of Islam cannot be in the habit of domestic violence, her aunt replies that “the precepts of religion permitted such punishment…a virtuous woman was not supposed to complain about her husband” (Page 96).

Overall, whether in the form of outright hypocrisy or a fundamentalist interpretation, religion seems to be a source of oppression in Woman at Point Zero rather than a source of solace or strength.

Theme of Self-worth

Self-worth is one of the themes that appears early in Woman at Point Zero and persists throughout the novel. Even before the novel transitions to Firdaus’ point of view, the psychiatrist struggles with her sense of worth. After Firdaus initially refuses to meet with her, the psychiatrist feels as if “the weight of the whole earth” is pressing upon her (Page 20). She compares it to an unrequited love she experienced in the past, and a feeling of universal rejection overcomes her. She likens herself to an “insignificant insect,” and only regains her “normal attitude towards herself” when she returns to her car (Page 21). In this example, the psychiatrist’s sense of self is dependent upon the feelings of other people.

Once we switch to Firdaus’s point of view, we bear witness to Firdaus’s own struggle with self-worth. Unlike other young women from her community, she successfully finishes school and earns her secondary school certificate. This is a source of pride, but she still allows her uncle and aunt-in-law to batter her self-esteem. This continues with Sheikh Mahmoud and Bayoumi until Sharifa finds her.

Sharifa, though she ultimately betrays Firdaus, is integral to Firdaus’s discovery of her own self-worth. Sharifa points out that Firdaus failed to value herself highly enough and allowed men to determine her value (Page 77). Though Sharifa partially means “value” in a monetary sense, Firdaus comes to realize that valuing oneself extends beyond money.

When she leaves Sharifa’s house and strikes out independently, Firdaus walks the streets with her head held high, demonstrating her newfound confidence. These feelings of self-worth crescendo at the end of the novel, at which point Firdaus reaches a point of total self-actualization.

Woman at Point Zero
Woman at Point Zero

Theme of Remembrance and Loss

The theme of remembrance and loss is one of the prominent themes in El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero. At an early age, Firdaus becomes familiar with the sensations of loss and remembrance. When her mother removes her clitoris, she stunts her sexuality and sense of femininity. This physical loss manifests in psychological and emotional losses that haunt Firdaus for the rest of her life. Every time she has a sexual or physical interaction with another person, the loss of her clitoris and the subsequent theft of her sexual freedom haunts her like a phantom limb. She describes it as a pleasure she remembers from a distant past, a fleeting memory that she loses almost as soon as she remembers it (Pages 47 and 79). An episode of remembering something lost marks every significant interaction Firdaus has. These episodes of remembrance start soon after Firdaus loses her clitoris, the first one occurring when her uncle begins to sexually assault her. It occurs again when Firdaus and Iqbal hold hands, and when Firdaus becomes a prostitute.

Theme of Dependence versus Independence

One of the burning questions Woman at Point Zero poses is whether or not a woman can lead a life independent of a man’s influence. From a young age, Firdaus lives under the influence of first, her father and later, her uncle. Both men dictate the terms of her life, and she depends on them for her livelihood.

When Firdaus’s uncle arranges her marriage to Sheikh Mahmoud, he passes the responsibility of caring for Firdaus to her new husband, as if he were passing a baton. Ironically, both Firdaus’ uncle and Sheikh Mahmoud complain about Firdaus’ dependence on them, but both ardently reject Firdaus’ offers to find work using her secondary school certificate. This is because if Firdaus were to find work, she would no longer be dependent on the men in her life, and the idea of that is dangerous to the men around her.

This pattern of dependence continues with Bayoumi and Sharifa, until, finally, Firdaus strikes out on her own. At this point, Firdaus has an epiphany and realizes that, for years, her body and herself didn’t belong to her: she was held in the grasp of other people. When she begins to find her own clients for her sex work, Firdaus gains the independence that’s eluded her since she was a young girl.

However, as Firdaus herself points out, “male noses have an uncanny way of sniffing out money” (Page 123). When Marzouk comes along and forces Firdaus to take him as her pimp, he strips her of her independence once more. Firdaus only regains her independence after she kills him, but as a result, she’s arrested, loses her freedom, and is ultimately executed. One of the conclusions we can draw from Firdaus’s story is that, for women, independence can come at a high price.

Theme of Fear

Theme of fear is one of the dominant themes in Woman at Point Zero. For most part of the novel, fear is experienced by women. Firdaus points out how fearful female company employees are of losing their job because they fear becoming prostitutes. Firdaus finds this ironic because, after being abused and raped as a wife, she realizes that the life of a prostitute is better than a “moral” woman’s life.

It’s not until the end of the novel, when she kills Marzouk, that Firdaus realizes she’s also been afraid her entire life. She was afraid of men, their power, and their ability to hurt. As Firdaus stabs Marzouk to death, she also kills her fear. In her own words, she fears nothing, and, therefore, she is finally free. The moment she stabs Marzouk is also significant because, for the first time, Firdaus sees fear in a man’s eyes. This fear is mirrored in the eyes of the prince she meets after she kills Marzouk.

Further Reading:

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