Woman At Point Zero (Nawal El Saadawi book)

Published 2022-08-03.

I picked up this book because it was Mona Eltahawy’s first recommended book in her FiveBooks interview about patriarchy. I had never heard of Saadawi before; she was an Egyptian feminist writer and psychiatrist who died last year. This book is creative nonfiction. It’s a novelized, first-person account of the life of a woman whom Saadawi interviewed in 1972. The woman, Firdaus, was a sex worker who agreed to speak with Saadawi right before she was executed for murdering her pimp. Saadawi wrote the book three years later.

It’s a quick read, but the material is heavy. Throughout her life, Firdaus was constantly and violently abused by countless men. She underwent genital mutilation as a child, molestation by her uncle as an adolescent, rape and beatings by her 60-year-old husband whom she’d been sold to as a teenager, further rapes and beatings by random men she encountered on the street, including police officers, and even a kidnapping by one of these men who kept her for an unspecified period as a sex slave.

By the time she met Saadawi, Firdaus absolutely hated men. She had come to see the relationship between men and women as equal to that between masters and slaves. The men she hated most of all were not those who physically or sexually abused her, but those who tried to give her advice, and who conceived of themselves as her protectors while ultimately exploiting her in subtler ways.

She felt that marriage was equivalent to slavery, in that it was just a way for a man to possess her body without having to literally pay her for it. The dignity she managed to find in life was, counterintuitively (to me), in her sex work: it allowed her to set her own prices and receive something in return for what would otherwise be forcibly taken from her. Of course, she had negative feelings about sex work too, especially after being told by a man that it made her unrespectable.

I’m glad I read this book. As a man, it’s unsettling to encounter an unequivocally misandrist perspective—all the more so when that perspective is so sympathetic.

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