Nawal El Saadawi is considered by many to be the pre-eminent feminist writing about and advocating for women in Islam. After having her writing banned in her home country of Egypt for being controversial, Saadawi was imprisoned in 1980 for being critical of the Sadat regime. But Saadawi was not silenced. In “Memoirs from the Women’s Prison” she wrote:
“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies. Nothing is more perilous than knowledge in a world that has considered knowledge a sin since Adam and Eve. But I don’t feel the danger, perhaps because it is a part of my life, just as a train or airplane passenger doesn’t sense the motion, once having become a part of it. And so nothing can alarm me. Writing is my life. There is no power in the world that can strip my
writings from me.”
How can I even begin to critique a piece which is at its core unfathomably daring and courageous? For me, and I would imagine for many, Saadawi’s works are as much or more about content than style, particularly when read in translation. And so I approach a review of “Woman at Point Zero” feeling unequal to the task.
“Woman at Point Zero” is a clipped, brusque bit of fiction, based on Saadawi’s firsthand experiences. In it Saadawi spins the tale of Firdaus, a prostitute sentenced to death for murdering a pimp. Firdaus recites her story on the eve of her execution, fiercely, unashamedly revealing the many oppressions, traumas, and abuses she has endured on her journey to becoming steely-eyed, fearless, and condemned to death.
“For death and truth are similar in that they both require a great courage if one wishes to face them. And truth is like death in that it kills. When I killed I did it with truth not with a knife. That is why they are afraid and in a hurry to execute me. They do not fear my knife. It is my truth which frightens them. This fearful truth gives me great strength. It protects me from fearing death, or life, or nakedness, or destruction. It is this fearful truth which prevents me from fearing the brutality of rulers and policemen.”
Firdaus is an audacious symbol of female struggle and revolt in an Islamic state. Though Firdaus’ history is based on women Saadawi met while conducting a psychiatric study among incarcerated women, her voice, her disdain, and her indomitable spirit are a thinly veiled recreation of the author’s own. Though first published in 1978 under long-ago-fallen regimes, Saadawi’s words are undeniably resonant, her anger achingly relevant.