Feminist Criticism in ‘Women at Point Zero’

Nawaal El Saadawi, author of  ‘Women at Point Zero’, dedicates a great deal of her life to better the lives of other women. Born in 1931, she has become an internationally renowned writer, novelist, and fighter for women’s rights both within Egypt and abroad. The oppression of Arab women is perhaps one of the most explored themes in her works, including the work we are studying, ‘Women at Point Zero’. As she gained recognition through her works, political attention sought her, too. It brought her imprisonment due to her public criticism of a one-party rule of a president. Although she was freed later on, her expression has always faced limitations. In 1982, she established the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, but it was outlawed in 1991. Saadawi also spent several years in exile. In 2004, Saadawi presented herself as a presidential candidate for the presidential elections in Egypt with a platform for human rights, democracy, and greater freedom for women. Her life and her stories open a window for readers from around the world to see the suffrage that Arab women endure. It can be said that ‘Women at Point Zero’, published in 1983, is a feminist novel because the novel focuses on female writing and female experiences and expresses a theme on the oppression of women with the hope for the betterment of women.

In the nineteenth century, works featured a few women working and focused mainly on the heroine’s choice of a marriage partner to determine her social position, happiness, and fulfillment in life. The realization of this sparked the critical theory of feminist criticism. Beginning in the 1980s, feminist criticism developed and transitioned through many stages. It has progressed extensively to discover silenced female voices in literature first by drawing upon the findings and approaches of other kinds of criticism, then by switching its focus from attacking male versions of the world to exploring the nature of the female world and outlook. Finally, it transitioned to constructing a new canon of women’s writing by rewriting the history of literature in such a way that neglected women writers were given new prominence (Barry).

Based on the critic Showalter, the history of women writing traveled through three phases:

  1. feminine phase (1840-80): women writers imitated dominant male artistic norms and aesthetic standards,
  2. feminist phase (1880-1920): radical and often separatist positions are maintained,
  3. female phase (1920 onwards): which looked particularly at female writing and female experience.

Among these phases, ‘Women at Point Zero’ falls under the female phase in which the story is endorsed in a female voice, female writing, and female experience; specifically, Saadawi encapsulates the voice and experience of our female protagonist, Firdaus. The novel, also referred to as a creative non-fiction, is an amalgamation of both reality and author’s interpretation of Firdaus’s life. From the forward, preface, and Chapter 1, readers learn that Sadaawi visited “Qanatir Prison” (1)  and received the opportunity to speak with a woman who “had been sentenced to death for killing a man” (1). Early in the story, it is revealed that Firdaus dies eventually. The authorial choice of revealing the ending suggests that Saadawi does not want the story to end at the end of Firdaus’s life. She wants her readers to see that Firdaus is not to be blamed but the society that she grew in — a society with the power to change young and innocent eyes to “eyes that killed, like a knife…” (5). She wants her readers to reflect on Firdaus’s life in hope that one day, no women would endure what Firdaus endured ever again.

One Comment

  1. kdalton said:

    Hi May,

    There seems to be a real imbalance in your response. You focus on El Saadawi and her life, and what feminist criticism is, but you leave the exploration of the text till the very end.

    You hit upon an interesting point in that Firdaus’s story is continued through El Saadawi. How might this be feminist in its approach? Is El Saadawi saying that women have the responsibility to continue the struggle by passing on stories. El Saadawi gives ‘voice’ to a dying woman, might this not be feministic in approach? Explore that idea further.

    April 15, 2020

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