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.