Firdaus, the central character in this 1975 novella by Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi (and translated from Arabic by Sherif Hetata) is in prison, waiting to die. When newspapers are brought to her, she spits on the photos of the men in the paper, the only way she has left to express her anger:
Anyone who saw me spitting on the picture might think I knew that particular man personally. But I did not. I am just one woman. And there is no single woman who could possibly know all the men who get their pictures published in the newspapers. For after all, I was only a successful prostitute. And no matter how successful a prostitute is, she cannot get to know all the man, However, all the men I did get to know, every single man of them, has filled me with but one desire: to lift my hand and bring it smashing down on his face.
Firdaus is telling her story to a psychiatrist who was interested to hear of Firdaus’s calm demeanor and her refusal to sign a request that her sentence be commuted from death to life imprisonment. She tells a story of a life where men controlled every aspect of her existence, from where she lived to where she went to school to who she married to what she did with her body. The closest thing to freedom she managed to find was life as a prostitute because she was able to earn her own money and was successful enough to be able to say no to clients she didn’t like the look of. But, even there, she was vulnerable to men.
The story shows how systemic injustice can lead a person to despise an entire group of people for their role in the injustice. Firdaus didn’t start out hating men. But after being treated badly by them again and again, in many different ways, she has no reason to feel anything but resentment and anger toward men in general. To do anything else is unsafe. Her narration shows a woman who wants to be happy, who had dreams and desires, who loved to learn and was willing to work. But in a world controlled by men, she has no opportunity for freedom. And so she’s quiet in her cell, waiting for her execution.
This is a short book, and a hard story to read. I’ve been thinking a lot about anger, specifically women’s anger, the past couple of weeks, and this was a compelling exploration of the topic. Firdaus speaks with such clarity and sincerity that it’s impossible not to be on her side and to feel anger at all the ways she’s been wronged. Her case is an extreme one, but it’s not unique. Nor is it confined to 1970s Egypt. I read part of Rebecca Traister’s book Good and Mad this week (although I gave it up because it’s too focused on recent history) and have watched a couple of episodes of the new documentary about Lorena Bobbitt, and this story fits right with those.