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.