Chapter 2 Summary of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero

Chapter 2 of Woman at Point Zero is about Firdaus’s life story. She begins to tell her life story, from her childhood.

Woman at Point Zero
Woman at Point Zero

Woman at Point Zero is a novel by Nawal El Saadawi written in 1977. The novel is based on Saadawi’s meeting with a female prisoner in Qanatir Prison and is the first-person account of Firdaus, a murderess who has agreed to tell her life story before her execution. The novel explores the themes of women and their traditional place within a patriarchal African society.

The novel is divided into three parts. Chapter 1 follows the narrator, who is also the author, as she describes her experiences as a psychiatrist in Egypt. She gives insights into the psychological effects of prison on female prisoners. Chapter 2 of Woman at Point Zero is about Firdaus’s life story. She begins to tell her life story, from her childhood to her current situation. In Chapter 3, after Firdaus finishes her story, the police come to her cell and take her away to be executed. The psychiatrist, who now is the narrator, leaves the cell and is ashamed of the world.

In this post, I am going to summarise Chapter 2 of Woman at Point Zero.


Chapter 2 Summary of Woman at Point Zero

Chapter 2, Part 1

Firdaus starts her story by commanding the psychiatrist not to speak. She wants to get her story out before her executioners come and take her. Her hanging is tomorrow, and soon she will transition to a place unknown to everyone on earth. The idea of this fills her with pride and makes her feel superior to everyone, particularly kings, princes, and rulers. Firdaus also admits that whenever she sees a picture of a man in the newspaper, she spits on him. She doesn’t know every man who appears in the paper personally, but every man she does get to know makes her want to smack him across the face. Because she is a woman, though, she was always afraid of doing that. As a prostitute, she hid her fear with her makeup. She explains that the makeup, hair, and shoes she acquired from being a prostitute were the only “upper-class” things about her. By birth, she was actually lower-class.

Her father was an illiterate, poor farmer. He knew very few things in life; they included how to grow crops, how to sell his sick farm animals to unsuspecting buyers, and how to beat his wife, amongst other unsavory talents. Every Friday, he and the other men of their village attend the Imam’s weekly prayer. Firdaus sees them walking back from the sermon as she fetches water for the family. They all look so similar that she can’t tell which one is her father. She asks her mother how she had given birth without a father, and, in response, her mother has her circumcised. On that day, things change. Typically, Firdaus’s mother sent her to the fields with manure. After dropping off her load, she would play with a boy named Mohammadain. They swam together and “played at bride and bridegroom.” When Mohammadain touched her, she felt a sharp pleasure. After her clitoris is removed, Firdaus is given duties around her family’s hut. There, her uncle begins to touch her like Mohammadain does, but her uncle takes it even further. Firdaus no longer feels “the sharp pleasure.” She tries to recall it, but it’s as if a part of her was gone and would never return.

Firdaus now shifts her focus to her uncle. He is an educated man who studies in Cairo and teaches her how to read. Whenever he would leave to go back home, she would follow him to the train station and beg him to take her with him. She says she wants to study at the university too, but her uncle says that only men are allowed to study there. Dejected, Firdaus walks back to her hut and wonders about her future. Back at her hut, she thinks about her parents and wonders if they are her real parents. She remembers the first time she saw her mother, particularly her mother’s eyes. She would curl up next to her mother, seeking warmth, but if her father was cold, her mother would go to his side to keep him warm. In summer, her mother would wash her father’s legs to keep him cool.

One day, her mother is no longer there, and another woman takes her place. This woman looks exactly like her mother, except for her eyes. Her eyes seem perpetually dark and dull. Firdaus cries at night for her real mother, but it seems that she has died, similar to her many little brothers and sisters who don’t make it to adolescence. When her sisters die, Firdaus’s father doesn’t seem to care, but when a boy dies, he beats his wife before eating his supper. Sometimes there’s only enough food for him, and he eats like a camel in front of his starving children. This makes Firdaus think that her father is not actually her father, and once her uncle returns to their village, she begs him to take her to Cairo. One day, her father dies, and her uncle enrolls her in elementary school. Shortly after her mother dies, and her uncle finally takes her to Cairo.

When Firdaus enters her uncle’s apartment, the technology in his home makes her feel like she’s been born twice. Looking into a mirror for the first time, she struggles to understand that the girl standing there is herself. She sees her parents in some of her facial features and hates it. In Cairo, Firdaus goes to a new school that she loves. It’s a coed school and she makes friends there. She excels in school and receives her primary school certificate. As a reward, her uncle buys her a wristwatch and takes her to see her first movie. The movie has a dancing woman who is scantily dressed. This embarrasses Firdaus. When she and her uncle return home, he tells her that dancing and kissing are sins, but later that night, he creeps into her bed, kisses her mouth, and sexually assaults her.

One day, her uncle marries the daughter of his teacher at the university. She is a cruel woman who doesn’t like Firdaus and considers her a burden on the family. She convinces Firdaus’s uncle to make her a boarding student at the school. At first, Firdaus is upset because they don’t even take her home on weekends like the families of her classmates, but eventually, she comes to love school. She makes a friend named Wafeya and talks of her hopes for the future. She dreams of being a doctor, engineer, lawyer, or judge. One day, she even attends a political demonstration against the government.

The school has a library, and after she finishes her schoolwork, Firdaus devours its books, newspapers, and magazines. She prefers books written about rulers, who are exclusively men. One night, she stays late at the library, and one of her teachers, Miss Iqbal, finds her. She sits next to Firdaus and asks her what’s wrong. Firdaus suddenly bursts into tears, and Miss Iqbal comforts her. Firdaus looks into Miss Iqbal’s eyes and feels connected to her. She begins to wonder if she loves Miss Iqbal.

Final exams fall upon the school, and Firdaus does extremely well. She scores second at her school and seventh overall in the country. At graduation, no one from her family is there to accept her secondary school certificate when the principal calls her name. Firdaus stands up and locks eyes with Miss Iqbal, who walks with her to collect her certificate. Shortly after graduation, the school year ends. The principal has to write a telegram to Firdaus’s uncle telling him to pick her up from school. The last day she’s at school, Firdaus looks furiously for Miss Iqbal, but she can’t find her. Back at her uncle’s house, Firdaus feels out of place. Her uncle’s wife wants her out of the house because she thinks she’s too expensive to take care of. Her uncle thinks it will be difficult for her to find a job with just a secondary school certificate, and he refuses to send her to university for further study. His wife suggests that Firdaus marries her uncle, a man named Sheikh Mahmoud. At first, Firdaus’s uncle rejects the idea because the Sheikh is much older than Firdaus, but his wife slowly convinces him to support it.

Firdaus overhears them discussing her. The next day, she packs up her things, says goodbye to Hala, her only cousin who likes her, and runs away from her uncle’s house. As she enters the bustling streets, Firdaus sees everything with new eyes. She marvels at the hundreds of people walking the streets and sees the fear on their faces. By nightfall, she hasn’t found a place to stay, and she feels a pair of cold eyes staring at her body. She gets scared and decides to return to her uncle’s house.

Chapter 2, Part 2

Soon after Firdaus returns to her uncle’s house, she marries Sheikh Mahmoud. At his house, she finally has a comfortable bed to sleep in, but her husband is constantly around her. Sheikh Mahmoud has an open sore on his chin, and it disgusts her. At night, he kisses her, touches her body, and sleeps with her. When he falls asleep, she slips out of bed and washes her body vigorously.

The Sheikh is miserly and a recluse. He has no friends and never leaves the house for fear of spending too much money. He watches Firdaus closely, and if he catches her wasting food or household goods, he beats her. One day, he hits her all over her body with his shoe, and her body swells up. Firdaus runs to her uncle’s house for protection, but he says that all husbands beat their wives; he returns her to Sheikh Mahmoud’s house that same day.

Back at her husband’s house, tensions are high. Sheikh Mahmoud ignores Firdaus until she tries to eat some of the breakfast, she prepared for them. He jumps up and begins to yell at her, asking why she didn’t stay at her uncle’s house if she wanted to run away. He leaps at her, and Firdaus lies passively as he rapes her, all the fight drained from her body.

One day, the Sheikh beats her so badly that she begins to bleed. She leaves his house again, this time for the streets. Although her face is swollen and bloody, no one asks her what is wrong or if they can help her. She passes a coffee shop and asks for a glass of water. At first, the waiter is annoyed, but then he sees her face and takes pity. He brings her the water and then brings the owner of the coffee shop over to talk to her. The owner of the shop asks for her name and about her family. When Firdaus says she has no one, he offers to let her stay in his spare room at his apartment until she finds work.

The shop owner’s name is Bayoumi, and he reminds Firdaus of her father. Looking at him, she feels no fear, for he seems calm, quiet, and incapable of being violent or cruel. At this home, Firdaus takes care of the house and cooks for Bayoumi. He refuses to let her sleep on the floor, and she feels embarrassed taking his bed, so they sleep together in his bed. He also never takes food from her plate, unlike Sheikh Mahmoud, and he doesn’t hit her.

Still, Firdaus grows restless at the situation. She passes schoolgirls in the streets and envies them. She goes to Bayoumi and tells him she must find work because they are living scandalously. Bayoumi argues that it’s impossible to find work with just a secondary school certificate, and Firdaus replies that she’ll go out on her own and look for work. This infuriates Bayoumi, and he slaps her across the face. Firdaus looks up into his face and no longer recognizes his eyes. He then punches her so hard in the stomach that she passes out.

Things change completely after this. Bayoumi now locks her in his apartment before leaving for the day. Firdaus now sleeps on the floor in the other room. At night, when Bayoumi comes home, he enters her room, slaps her across the face, and rapes her. She usually keeps her eyes closed as he rapes her, but one night, his body feels different. On that night, she opens her eyes and sees that another man is on top of her, one of Bayoumi’s friends.

The situation continues like this until a neighbor sees her weeping through the lattice door of Bayoumi’s apartment. The neighbor offers to call the police, but Firdaus is too afraid, so she calls a carpenter instead. The carpenter forces the door open, and Firdaus escapes to the streets.

Woman at Point Zero
Woman at Point Zero

Chapter 2, Part 3

Firdaus wanders aimlessly until she reaches the banks of the Nile. She sits down to enjoy the breeze, and she closes her eyes. Suddenly, a woman’s voice asks for her name. When she opens her eyes, she sees a woman with a green shawl and eye makeup sitting next to her. The woman peers at Firdaus’s face, and then asks, “what did the son of a dog do to you?”

Firdaus is astonished that the woman can clearly see she was abused. The woman goes on, listing names of men, and asks who started the abuse, Firdaus’s father, brother, or uncle? Firdaus replies that it was her uncle, and then the woman asks for her name. When Firdaus asks for the woman’s name, she tells her it is Sharifa Salah el Dine and that everyone knows who she is.

Sharifa takes Firdaus home with her. When Firdaus enters her apartment, it’s like the first time she enters her uncle’s flat in Cairo all over again. Sharifa has hot and cold water, soft clothes, and good food. She cares for Firdaus until Firdaus feels soft and smooth like a newborn baby. Firdaus hugs Sharifa and asks her who she is. Sharifa replies that she is “your mother, your sister,” to which Firdaus responds that all her family is dead. Sharifa tells Firdaus that everyone dies; what matters is how you live. When Firdaus says that life is terribly hard, Sharifa tells her that she must be harder like a snake, ready to withstand life’s bites.

Firdaus falls under Sharifa’s tutelage. Sharifa helps Firdaus see the beauty and worth in her body and mind. She praises Firdaus for her secondary school certificate, and says that none of the men in Firdaus’s life understood her worth because Firdaus failed to realize her own worth.

When Firdaus questions how she can ask a man for anything, Sharifa replies that that’s her job. Sharifa is a prostitute and begins to find men to pay for sex with Firdaus. These men are clean and don’t hit her. Still, Firdaus longs to feel something, and she asks Sharifa why she can’t feel pleasure. Sharifa laughs and then asks Firdaus if she doesn’t feel pleasure eating good food, wearing nice clothes, and living in a beautiful house. This causes Firdaus to question her life in Sharifa’s house. She never leaves her bedroom, simply waiting for men to come in every hour. The men are usually married, wealthy, and always ask her if she feels good.

One man, Fawzy, doesn’t ask her if she feels good. Instead, he asks if she feels pain. When she says yes, but that Sharifa says work is work, he laughs and tells her that Sharifa is fooling her: she’s making money using Firdaus’s body, while all Firdaus gets is pain. This makes Firdaus cry. Fawzy comforts her, then forces her to sleep in his arms.

When Firdaus wakes up, he’s gone, but she can hear his voice coming from Sharifa’s room. Fawzy says he wants to marry Firdaus, and Sharifa accuses him of taking Firdaus away from her. The two argue back and forth until Sharifa threatens to get a man named Shawki involved. This enrages Fawzy, who begins to rape Sharifa. Firdaus listens until she can’t hear noise coming from Sharifa’s room anymore. When she creeps over and peeks in, she sees Sharifa lying naked with Fawzy next to her. Firdaus quietly gathers her things and flees to the streets once more.

Firdaus wanders the streets alone in a thin dress until a police officer comes up to her. He grabs her arm and tries to force her to come home with him for a price. When she refuses, he threatens to have her arrested for prostitution. Firdaus tries to break free, but he holds onto her and forces her to his house, where he rapes her. When he’s done, he says he has no money on him and tells her to leave. Firdaus goes back on the streets, and it begins to rain. She takes refuge underneath a bus stop; she is drying herself off when a man pulls up in a car. The man gets out of his car, opens the door for her, and politely asks her to get in. At his house, he helps her undress and bathes her in warm water. He then carries her to his room and they have sex.

When Firdaus wakes up, it’s morning. She collects her things and begins to move towards the door, but the man stops her and gives her ten pounds. At this moment, a metaphorical veil is lifted from her eyes. She recalls the first and only time she ever held money before: when she begged her father for a piastre and he gave her one in exchange for doing extra chores. She realizes for the first time ever that she has a whole ten pounds that belong to her.

She goes to a restaurant and orders a whole chicken for herself. As she eats, she notices that the waiter avoids looking at her plate and at the ten-pound note she has. She realizes that having money is making all the difference in how he is treating her. She also realizes that the people in her life hid their money from her, to the point that she unconsciously began to view money as shameful. She wants to ask the waiter who gets to decide for whom having money is permissible and for whom it is forbidden, but she realizes this is pointless. She decides to just pay for her meal instead.

From this day on, Firdaus walks through the streets with her head held high. She looks people in the eyes and she only lowers her gaze when she sees people with money. When men come up to her and solicit her for sex, she looks them over carefully, consideringly, before either saying yes or no. One man asks why she refuses to sleep with him, and she replies that she has standards. Another man comes up and says the secret word: “money.” She goes with him.

From then on, Firdaus sells her body on her own terms and keeps all of the profit. She gets an apartment of her own and finally has free time to do as she pleases. She begins to make friends, and one such friend is a journalist named Di’aa. The first time she receives him, he asks to talk to her and accuses her of treating her work like a clinic. He also says that she is not a respectable woman. This deeply offends Firdaus, and she refuses to sleep with him. Di’aa leaves, but his words remain and resonate within her. She resolves that, no matter the cost, she must become a respectable woman.

Chapter 2, Part 4

Using her secondary school certificate, Firdaus applies to jobs until, finally, something opens up at a big industrial company. There, she has her own small office and works under a chairman. Because her job pays less than her work as a prostitute, she can no longer afford her apartment and moves into a small room with no toilet. She must wake up every day at 5 a.m. and queue for the bathroom. To get to work, she takes a crowded bus.

One day, a top executive from her firm sees her running for the bus and offers her a ride. When Firdaus looks into his eyes, she can see he’s judging her, so she refuses and says that the price of her body is higher than the price of a pay raise.

After three years of working at the firm, Firdaus realizes she was more respected as a prostitute than she is as a female employee. She refuses to “curry favor” with any of the top executives or officials, and she pities her female colleagues who give their bodies to these men in exchange for job benefits. Firdaus also realizes that all women are prostitutes of a sort—some are just in more control of their lives and livelihood, and thus more expensive. Ironically, because Firdaus wasn’t desperate to keep her low-paying company job, this endeared her more to company officials. She became known as an honorable woman, the most highly respected female official in the company.

One night, Firdaus is sitting in the company courtyard when a man approaches her. His name is Ibrahim, and he also works at the company. Similar to when Miss Iqbal found her sitting in the school courtyard, Firdaus bursts into tears and Ibrahim comforts her. She stares into his eyes, holds his hands, and feels a deep pleasure.

The next few days at work, Firdaus increasingly notices Ibrahim. She writes his name on her desk and tries to go speak with him, but she can’t strike up the courage. Her friend Fatheya notices that Firdaus is acting oddly and suggests that perhaps Firdaus is in love with Ibrahim. Firdaus denies this, but she begins volunteering for Ibrahim’s revolutionary committee.

One day, Ibrahim gives her a ride home and compliments her on her work ethic. Instead of going home, they talk all day about their pasts and hopes for the future. The next day, they meet again and speak about things they hid in the deepest corners of their minds. On the third day, he takes her back to his house, where they sleep together.

Firdaus is overjoyed. Everything around her is bathed in light, and she feels as light as a feather. A colleague sees her and asks what’s wrong. When Firdaus tells her that she’s in love, her colleague says Firdaus is a poor deluded woman for thinking that love is real. Firdaus doesn’t believe her colleague; she says that love has made her a different person. She then goes to find Ibrahim and sees him surrounded by a crowd. When she walks over to him, she hears people in the crowd congratulating him on his recent engagement to the chairman’s daughter.

Ibrahim’s betrayal devastates Firdaus. She packs her things and leaves the company for good. She realizes that, as a prostitute, she never felt pain such as this. She decides that the time has come to shed the last grain of virtue: a successful prostitute is better than a misled wife. With these revelations, Firdaus enters a state of tranquility. She once again walks the streets and feels free and at peace. As she walks, a fancy car pulls up next to her. Firdaus laughs and gets in.

From then on, Firdaus is hateful and distrustful towards men. She especially cannot stand the ones who try to give her advice about her life. She wonders where these men were when her husband was beating her or when she was getting raped by Bayoumi and his friends. She also grows more selective in her customers, thereby becoming a very successful and high-paid prostitute. One time, she refuses to sleep with a very important government official, and he gets her thrown in prison. Firdaus hires a prominent lawyer and gets her released from jail. The courts apparently decided that she was an honorable woman. This makes Firdaus realize that if she ever needs a dose of honor or fame, all she has to do is withdraw some money from her bank.

Of course, a woman with copious amounts of money and no man in her life attracts attention. Before long, many men approach Firdaus, some asking to marry her, others asking for love. One of them, a man named Marzouk, demands to be her pimp. Firdaus offers to buy him off with money, but he refuses and insists on sharing her earnings. He claims that every prostitute needs a pimp for protection. When Firdaus argues back, he says that he will be forced to threaten her. She tries to report him to the police, but she finds that he has even better connections than she does. One day, he follows her home, forces his way into her house, and rapes her.

From then on, Marzouk takes most of Firdaus’s earnings for himself. She finds out that he is a dangerous pimp who controls many prostitutes, including her. She realizes that she wasn’t really free and that she’s no longer in control of her life. One day, she’s had enough and tries to leave, but Marzouk appears in front of her. He tries to prevent her from leaving, claiming that she can never work for herself as a woman. Firdaus looks up at him with hate as only a woman can hate a man. She sees fears in his eyes for a second, and she attempts to open the door of the apartment. Marzouk slaps her across her face, and Firdaus slaps him back. He reaches for his knife, but Firdaus is quicker. She grabs it from his pocket and stabs him to death. Firdaus opens the door and escapes the street once again. She feels as light as a feather. She realizes that, all her life, she’d lived in fear, until the moment she saw fear in Marzouk’s eyes, then the fear left her body. She walks idly through the streets with confidence, like a princess. At the corner of the street, she sees a man hanging out a car window staring at her. He says he is an Arab prince, and he asks her to come with him. She refuses until he offers her two thousand pounds.

Back at the prince’s house, Firdaus does her usual ritual and lets her body slip away from her as they have sex. The prince continually asks her if she’s feeling pleasure, and she lies and says “yes” to him—until he annoys her. Then, she retorts angrily “No!” When the prince gives her the two thousand pounds, she tears up the money in fury. As she’s destroying the money, Firdaus feels like she’s also destroying all the men she’d ever known. The prince is astounded and says that Firdaus must be a princess. Firdaus denies this and tells him that she is a killer. The prince doesn’t believe her until she slaps him across the face. She then says that burying a knife in his neck would be as easy as slapping him. Shocked, he begins to scream and calls the police.

When the police arrive, they question Firdaus and ask if she’s truly a criminal. Firdaus answers that she is a killer, but she’s not a criminal for she’s committed no crime. She only kills men, all of whom are criminals. She then accuses all fathers, uncles, husbands, pimps, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and men of all professions of being criminals. The police call her a savage and dangerous woman, put handcuffs on her hands, and take her away.

In prison, Firdaus is put in solitary confinement and she receives the death penalty. She says that this is because men know that her living means their death. She, however, has triumphed over death and life because she no longer wants anything, fears anything, or hopes anything. She is finally free. She waits in her cell for the hangman, filled with pride, because she’s about to journey to a place where no king, prince, or ruler has ever been.

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