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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Throughout the telling of her story, Firdaus describes the act of seeing as akin to an act of possession. One of Firdaus’s earliest memories as a child is the memory of her mother’s eyes watching her, holding her up when she struggled to learn how to walk and negotiate the world. For the young Firdaus, this sense of belonging to her mother and being watched over by her is very comforting. She feels that being a possession of her mother is what protects her. Later, though, the act of being surveyed takes on a very different meaning. When Firdaus grows older, she no longer feels her mother’s eyes supporting her. From then on, whenever Firdaus senses someone’s eyes watching her, she feels threatened. When Firdaus first runs away from her uncle’s house, she encounters a terrifying man who runs his eyes up and down her body, making Firdaus feel invaded, and as if her body were not her own.
Firdaus’s life-long struggle is to claim her body as her own. When Firdaus marries Sheikh Mahmoud, his eyes never leave her dish at mealtimes, and he watches every morsel of food she eats with jealous intensity. Firdaus becomes self-conscious about eating. Firdaus describes almost all of the men she encounters in the same way—they rake their eyes over her body and, in doing so, act as though her body exists only for them. It is not until she is in prison that Firdaus learns to feel at ease during other people’s examinations of her. This is because Firdaus has proven to herself that she owns herself and that she is in control of her own destiny.
For the young Firdaus, the nature of power seems at first to be very simple: men have it and women do not. Her father has power over her mother. Her uncle has power over her. When she is married, Sheikh Mahmoud has power over her. Even men on the street have power over the women they pass, merely by turning them into objects with their eyes. Bayoumi, who locks Firdaus in his apartment and lets his friends have sex with her, has power over her. It isn’t until Firdaus meets Sharifa that her ideas of power begin to change. Sharifa is a wealthy, independent woman. Rather than allowing men free use of her body, as married women do, Sharifa uses the power of the desires that men have for her to her advantage. She teaches Firdaus how to command the power of her physical appearance. Still, Firdaus doesn’t know what it means to possess power of her own. She learns that women can have power, too, but she cannot fully wield her own power while living under Sharifa’s control.
When she sets out on her own as a prostitute, Firdaus finally learns what it means to have something that other people desire. This is power. She learns that she can command higher and higher prices simply by denying people what they want, or exercising the power that she has over them. Because of this, she feels that money is power. When she possesses money of her own, she has power over the people who slander her, and she can give herself a respectable name by hiring a lawyer and suing. Her brief stint as an office worker only serves to reinforce this idea, and when she goes back to prostitution, she charges more money than ever and uses her money to mingle with more powerful people. Firdaus comes to believe that she has attained real power. But the pimp who claims her proves that this is not the case. He threatens to defame her or kill her, proving that no matter how much money she has, Firdaus is still vulnerable to men because she has something to lose. When she kills the pimp and later tears up the prince’s money, Firdaus finally proves that she has control over herself.
Attaining respect does not become one of Firdaus’s goals until Di’aa, who has engaged her services as a prostitute, points out to her that in spite of her financial security, she is not respectable. Until Firdaus has money of her own, the way that the world views her never really enters into her consideration. This is in part because the world has never paid her much attention before. She was just an invisible person occupying the role of daughter or wife. When she finally accumulates some wealth and power, the world takes notice. Men take notice because, in Firdaus’s world, men don’t want women to have power over them. By condemning her work as a prostitute as shameful, they try to minimize her power, though they are also involved in the exchange of sex and money. For the men in Firdaus’s story, respectable women are women who are submissive and live under the protection of a powerful man.
When Di’aa tells Firdaus that she is not respectable because the work she does is shameful, she is deeply hurt. In an effort to become a more respectable woman, she gives up her nice apartment and prostitution in order to work in an office. Indeed, she becomes a “respectable” woman by placing herself under the power of men again. Firdaus’s relationship with Ibrahim is a part of this quest for respectability. She’s playing by the rules and, for the first time, she feels as though she’s met a man she can trust. The sacrifices she’s made to become respectable seem worthwhile. However, when Firdaus discovers that Ibrahim was using her for sex, she once again realizes that “respectability” is a trap that is designed to put women at the mercy of men. By quitting her job and taking up prostitution again, Firdaus rejects the pursuit of a “respectable” life in favor of a life of power and self-determination. Firdaus has come to see that respectability in her world means playing by someone else’s rules.
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