Nawal El Sadaawi is both the author and the narrator of Woman at Point Zero. As the author, she presents a fictionalized version of two real people: Firdaus and herself. Though the fictional characters closely resemble the two real people, they are distinct. The fictional El Sadaawi struggles with feelings of insignificance, and by the end of the book she is consumed with helpless rage over the condition of women, including herself, in her country. Undoubtedly, the author El Sadaawi also has these feelings, but by the time she wrote Woman at Point Zero, she had long been a significant figure in her country’s consciousness, as well as a crusader for women’s rights.
The fictional El Sadaawi is first introduced when she visits the prison in which Firdaus is awaiting her execution. El Sadaawi approaches her meetings with Firdaus with desperation. Firdaus is an imprisoned prostitute, and El Sadaawi, an educated and wealthy doctor, occupies a much higher social position. Still, El Sadaawi is devastated by Firdaus’s initial refusal to be interviewed; it makes her feel insignificant. When Firdaus finally agrees to meet El Sadaawi, El Sadaawi approaches her like a petitioner. This is because El Sadaawi, despite her education and status, is still subject to discrimination and feels insignificant most of the time. Because the imprisoned Firdaus refuses to be “put in her place,” El Sadaawi suspects that Firdaus might have some sort of strength or knowledge for which El Sadaawi is desperate. The doctor therefore approaches the prisoner for wisdom and guidance.
El Sadaawi’s reaction to the end of Firdaus’s tale—the helpless fury and sorrow she feels after Firdaus goes to her execution—further demonstrates her feelings of insignificance. The truth of Firdaus’s story, which shows so starkly the position of women in El Sadaawi’s society, is such that El Sadaawi feels her own lack of power all the more keenly. She has spoken to someone who had been oppressed for much of her life before finally seizing power. Yet El Sadaawi does not act on violent impulses to destroy the oppressive forces in her society after Firdaus is killed, and she is disappointed in herself. The book ends with character El Sadaawi’s realization that Firdaus has more courage than she, El Sadaawi, has. Here, again, it is important to separate the fictional character from the figure of the revolutionary author. The real El Sadaawi was galvanized by her encounters with the woman who inspired the character of Firdaus. Among other things, the encounter inspired her to write the book, Woman at Point Zero, to illuminate the sufferings of Egyptian women for a larger audience.
Firdaus is a woman struggling to live a dignified life in a society in which women have limited options. Throughout the book, Firdaus fights not just to be in control of her own destiny but also to figure out who she is. But she has little time to devote to self-exploration. The scene in Bayoumi’s coffee shop is an example of this. Bayoumi asks Firdaus whether she wants oranges or tangerines, and Firdaus is unable to answer him, having never considered whether she might like one thing more than another. For most of her life, it has never been important what she wanted. What was important was what the men around her wanted. And as Firdaus tells it, all of the men around her are brutes who exult in the power that they have over women. To some extent, Firdaus’s life becomes about living in opposition to the men in her life. Taking pleasure from a relationship with men is never really an option for her. This is partially because she needs to be treated like an equal, which never happens, but also because of her clitoridectomy. This procedure robs her of pleasure during sex.
By the time Firdaus becomes a prostitute, she has discovered that she can exploit the desire that many men have for her by getting money for it. She learns that people with money can also command respect. But having money and commanding respect do not make Firdaus feel respectable. To someone who dreamed of studying and becoming a scholar, the life of a prostitute is disappointing and demeaning, yet Firdaus also suggests that the life of a prostitute might be a surer path to dignity and self-determination than the “respectable” life of an office assistant. At least as a prostitute Firdaus need not show deference toward even the most powerful of men.
Firdaus’s uncle is a complicated figure in her life, and in many ways her relationship with him forms a template for her relationships with the other men in the story. When Firdaus is a young girl living with her mother and father, her uncle represents a kind of freedom. He is a scholar, and he lives in Cairo, far away from the rural world of Firdaus’s immediate family. Yet he also sexualizes young Firdaus, as shown in the way he caresses her thighs. Though Firdaus is uncomfortable with the way in which he touches her, she does not object because it doesn’t occur to her to do so. As a result of this and her father’s behavior toward her mother, Firdaus learns to think that men own women’s bodies. Despite this, her uncle is still her savior. After Firdaus’s parents die, her uncle brings her to Cairo, where they sleep in the same bed and live like a married couple, though it isn’t clear whether they have a sexual relationship. Firdaus’s uncle sends her to school and consequently provides her with a much better life than the one she lived with her parents.
However, her uncle soon abandons the life of a scholar to become a civil servant. At this point, Firdaus learns that men value power above all else. She also learns how insignificant she is to her uncle when compared to his thirst for power. In order to advance, Firdaus’s uncle marries above his station. Because his new wife does not care for Firdaus, Firdaus is sent to boarding school. Firdaus’s uncle turns out to be just as selfish as all of the other men in her life. When he eventually marries Firdaus off to his wife’s old and disfigured uncle for a large sum of money, he confirms Firdaus’s belief that she is alone in the world, and that men are horrible hypocrites who will do anything for money and power.
Sharifa is the high-class prostitute who finds Firdaus sitting by the Nile after her escape from Bayoumi’s house. Sharifa takes Firdaus to her luxurious home, and it occurs to Firdaus for the first time that she could one day have a home of her own and be surrounded by nice things. Sharifa, through her confidence and the skillful application of makeup, helps Firdaus see that she has beauty and strength. Unfortunately, Sharifa shows her these things in order to make her more appealing to the men to whom Sharifa hopes to sell Firdaus’s body. Though she takes Firdaus under her wing in order to earn more money, Sharifa does act as a mother figure to Firdaus, and it is under Sharifa’s care that it first occurs to Firdaus that she might be able to live without the protection of a man. Like Firdaus’s own mother, Sharifa both supports and undermines Firdaus. Under Sharifa, Firdaus is reborn as an attractive woman aware of the power that she has over men. But like Firdaus’s mother, Sharifa is jealous of the attention men give to Firdaus, and seeks to control her.
Eventually, Firdaus realizes that she has to leave Sharifa. This realization comes because she needs to make her own money and determine the course of her own destiny. In addition, Sharifa’s imagination is constrained by a patriarchal society in a way in which Firdaus’s is not. Sharifa only wants money and a comfortable life, and is willing to play the game that powerful men have set up in order to attain these things. Sharifa is more charming with the men who come to visit, and more eager to please. This is because she still believes herself to be, in some respect, a supplicant, lucky to get whatever money men throw her way. Firdaus wants to be comfortable, but she also wants power of her own. Firdaus begins by emulating Sharifa, but it is only after Firdaus leaves Sharifa that she realizes that as a prostitute, she commands power over men, not the other way around.