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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
During her childhood, Firdaus experiments sexually with a local boy named Mohammadain. They play “bride and bridegroom,” meaning that they take off their clothes and rub against one another. Firdaus describes the sensation of pleasure she gets from her encounters with Mohammadain, which end when her mother forces her to undergo a strange surgery. It is not fully explained in the book, but Firdaus undergoes a clitoridectomy (the removal of her clitoris). After this procedure, Firdaus never again experiences sexual pleasure the way she once did. Though her mother forces her to undergo the procedure as a matter of tradition and doesn’t seem to think about it politically, Firdaus considers the tradition another attempt to suppress women. By removing the clitoris, sex has become an act in which only men take pleasure. Firdaus believes that if women were equal to men, then both would find pleasure in sex.
Pleasure is out of the question in her sexual encounters with her old, deformed husband. To Firdaus, these encounters are horrific, and she describes the stench of his open wound and the lack of joy she feels during sex. She also describes with contempt the way men who come to her as clients will demand, during sex, to know whether or not she is taking pleasure in the act. For these men, the act is not about two people enjoying each other, but instead about proving their physical prowess. They are determined to wring pleasure from Firdaus, whether she wants it or not. Firdaus tells the men that she enjoys sex (though she does not), which stops them from asking. When Firdaus overhears her uncle and his wife having sex, the idea of it warms her, but she is unable to take pleasure in it herself.
As a woman from a poor family, Firdaus has never had to make many choices. Her clitoris is removed and she is married to a tyrannical older husband without anyone ever asking her opinion. The first real choice she has ever had to make comes when she flees her husband’s home. When Bayoumi asks her whether she prefers oranges or tangerines, Firdaus is struck by the fact that nobody has ever asked her to make a decision like that before. She realizes she does not even know which fruit she prefers, because she has never had to think about what she wanted. Other people always told her what would happen. After this, choice becomes an obsession for Firdaus.
As a prostitute, Firdaus has the money and the power to make choices for herself. She chooses her own apartment and clothing and also begins to choose which men she will and will not sleep with. Because of this, she begins to believe in her own independence. The power to choose for herself is intoxicating. And soon, the fact that she has rejected powerful men makes her even more alluring to them. By exercising choice, Firdaus commands more and more money and gets an increasingly prestigious clientele. However, the pimp who moves in and demands control over her shatters the illusion of choice for Firdaus. Firdaus realizes that no matter how powerful she might seem, she is still a woman, and men will still attempt to exercise control over her. In Firdaus’s world, there is no way for her to make real choices. Though it seems to some that a female prisoner has less power than even the lowliest wife, Firdaus feels that waiting on death row is the most liberating thing that has ever happened to her. She chooses not to appeal her sentence; she would prefer to die in order to escape the control that other people have over her. Only when dead will Firdaus be free.
Firdaus explains that all of her life until the time she spends in prison has been spent in captivity. Though as a child, a wife, and a prostitute, she had some degree of physical freedom, she did not attain mental freedom until she got to prison. Captivity, for Firdaus, means living under someone else’s power. It means not making choices for oneself and agreeing to be deceived by those in power (whether those in power are presidents or fathers or husbands). Though Firdaus is waiting to die in prison, she considers herself freer than anyone else in the world. She certainly feels freer than Nawal El Saadawi, who hopes to interview her. Nawal senses this, and it is for this reason that she is so devastated when Firdaus refuses, time and time again, to be interviewed.
Firdaus looks forward to death because it means that she will have a chance to start over. Though she is enclosed in a cell, she feels free. She refuses to work with the system, sign an appeal, or visit with the doctor because she does not want to feel like a captive. Signing appeals would only serve to entrap her again, as she would have to appeal to, and thereby recognize, the power of men. When she finally agrees to meet with Nawal, it is only in order to spread a message of truth and to do further damage to the world that abused her before she dies.
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