“Woman at Point Zero” is based on a true story about a woman whose struggles to survive poverty end with her facing execution at the same prison where the author herself was held for political activism.


  • Samer Shehata Associate professor of Middle East politics at the University of Oklahoma and author of "Islamist Politics in the Middle East: Movements and Change."
  • Mervat Hatem Political science professor at Howard University.
  • Mahnaz Afkhami Founder and president of the Women's Learning Partnership and former minister of Women's Affairs in Iran.


  • 11:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. "Woman at Point Zero" is a novel by the Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi. It's based on a true story about a woman who's forced into prostitution to survive. When she's sentenced to die she's held in the same prison where El Saadawi herself later spent time behind bars for protesting Egypt's one-party rule.

  • 11:07:26

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for this month's "Readers' Review," Mahnaz Afkhami of the Women's Learning Partnership, Samer Shehata of the University of Oklahoma and Mervat Hatem of Howard University. I hope you'll be part of the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850, send us an email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. It's good to have you all here.

  • 11:08:01

    MR. SAMER SHEHATAThank you.

  • 11:08:04

    REHMAnd, Samer, let me start with you. this novel first published in English in 1983 is based on a true story. Tell us the circumstances behind the story.

  • 11:08:20

    SHEHATAWell, Nawal El Saadawi is psychiatrist and also a writer and in the early 1970s she did research in prisons among women and apparently this is a fictionalized account of her meeting and her learning about the life of this character who was a poor woman, who is called Firdaus in the novel, which interestingly enough in Arabic means "paradise."

  • 11:08:52

    SHEHATAAnd the story of Firdaus' life and struggles and how she came into prostitution and she eventually committed a murder, murdering her, you know, pimp and then she was sentenced to death and died. And this is a fictionalized account of that, a beautiful and powerful account of Firdaus' harrowing life and all that she went through.

  • 11:09:17

    REHMShe did spend time in prison herself, did she not?

  • 11:09:22

    SHEHATAWell, that's right. Nawal El Saadawi was imprisoned in September of 1981 along with about 1,000 other individuals in the month or so before President Anwar Sadat's assassination on October 6th, 1981 and there was a mass roundup of political figures of all different stripes at the time.

  • 11:09:43

    SHEHATAFrom revolutionary socialists to Islamists to writers and intellectuals and Nawal El Saadawi was one of those individuals who was imprisoned at the time and spent several months in jail.

  • 11:09:55

    REHMMahnaz, how provocative was the novel when it first came out in Arabic?

  • 11:10:04

    MS. MAHNAZ AFKHAMIWell, actually very. I think it was a ground breaking publication and we have to realize that this was at the same time as the more radical feminism was becoming more expansive and the movement was building in the West as well.

  • 11:10:31

    MS. MAHNAZ AFKHAMISo there was a connection between the two, although hers is very indigenous, very local and personal. Nevertheless, the anger, the sense of powerlessness, the feeling of having no say in the choices of life are things we shared internationally and were at that time. So there was a lot of, you know, resonance concerning her novel when it first came out.

  • 11:11:04

    REHMAnd what is it that Firdaus provides to the author that El Saadawi finds so intriguing?

  • 11:11:17

    AFKHAMIWell, I think the, if we're going to think of the focal point it's the fact that woman basically have only one resource and that's their body and it's provision of sex. Whether it's in the situation of marriage where they are in the tradition, in the religious tradition, obliged to provide sex.

  • 11:11:44

    AFKHAMIThat's why in Islam, for instance, it's not even possible to talk about seriously about marital rape. It's the duty of the woman to provide that. Outside of marriage, as Firdaus is, actually involved is also a kind of resource which can be mobilized to bring financial well being to a woman.

  • 11:12:08

    AFKHAMISo that is what she's so frustrated about, that this is the only resource and it's a resource both to gain some minimum possibilities and support but at the same time a very oppressive resource.

  • 11:12:26

    REHMMervat, tell us about…

  • 11:12:28

    MS. MERVAT HATEMDiane, may I add to just...

  • 11:12:30

    REHMSure, go ahead.

  • 11:12:32

    HATEMWell, I mean, what's very important and provocative about this particular novel is that it gives to voice a woman who belongs to a very marginalized group. Not only working class but also a prostitution and to focus on that, her perspective on the family, on society, on marriage, on practically everything, that's not a voice that you often hear in Arabic literature.

  • 11:13:02

    HATEMAnd through Firdaus, El Saadawi is also able to give a critique or to demolish the romantic view of the family as a place in which women not only get to be very dated but also are protected from dangers. Because, I mean, in the family she tells us there it occurs, there are inequalities between men and women.

  • 11:13:28

    HATEMThere is also sexual abuse that is sort of lots ill that is characteristic of the larger society and which you can also examine and discuss when you're discussing family.

  • 11:13:45

    REHMAnd talk about Firdaus' childhood.

  • 11:13:50

    HATEMWell, obviously she comes from a very vulnerable working class rural family. Poverty is largely mostly concentrated, excuse me, in the Egyptian countryside and therefore Firdaus talks, for instance, about sort of being hungry. Not having access also to the love and affection of her parents.

  • 11:14:14

    REHMSo it's not just hunger for food, it's hunger for the love, the caring?

  • 11:14:21

    HATEMExactly, yes. Samer mentioned the fact that Saadawi was also trained as psychiatrist and therefore her discussion doesn't only address the social and economic inequalities but also the kinds of emotional dilemmas that are faced by children who grow up in families like that.

  • 11:14:47

    HATEMAnd in fact, one of the most intriguing themes of the novel is the fact that Firdaus is constantly asking important figures, starting with her mother and then her teacher and then even her lover in the end, the revolutionary.

  • 11:15:08

    HATEMI mean, she talks about their eyes and searching for something in their eyes and it's actually the feeling of being connected, the love, affection. These are important things. It's something that she's searching for throughout the novel.

  • 11:15:24

    REHMTalk about her uncle, Samer, because though she has a childhood friend with whom she plays bride and bridegroom it is her uncle, someone she trusted initially, who takes advantage of her.

  • 11:15:48

    SHEHATAWell, her uncle is a complicated figure because her uncle, like her, comes from the countryside but unlike her goes to Cairo for religious studies and studies at Ilzar (sp?) and therefore in comparison he's quite sophisticated and, in fact, in the novel Saadawi tells us that he allows Firdaus to be with him when he reads his books and so he is a window into a different kind of a world.

  • 11:16:11

    SHEHATAAnd also then when her parents die he takes her to Cairo with him and she completes her education there. So in one sense there's a liberating aspect to the uncle but there's also a very dark aspect to the uncle as well, a dark and thoroughly unprincipled aspect.

  • 11:16:29

    SHEHATAThere are aspects of sexual molestation and so on. he certainly takes advantage of her from a young age and takes advantage of her when they're in Cairo and then when the uncle marries and he marries up for social climbing purposes and so on and becomes a civil servant and a bureaucrat she's really relegated to the lowest possible position in the household.

  • 11:16:56

    REHMBecause his wife does not like her.

  • 11:17:01

    AFKHAMIThat, of course, but also I think that what happens in the novel is somehow an indication of the anger that is prevalent throughout the entire, not only this novel but also novels career, expressions that she has either in interviews or in other works that she has produced.

  • 11:17:28

    AFKHAMIThis anger at the way things are and anger at men and men as patriarchs, men as heads of families, men as owners of women. And I think that even the uncle who is really the only person who helps her, who provides her with an education, who in a way opens doors for her to learn more about life, even he ends up to be basically focused on her body and, you know, someone who is not quite what she expected him to be.

  • 11:18:04

    REHMBut there's one other element which is that the woman the uncle marries wants to be rid of Firdaus because she's somehow, I think, feels jealous. She feels as though Firdaus takes away from the attention that the uncle might actually give to her.

  • 11:18:33

    REHMWe've got to take a short break here. When we come back we'll talk more about this book, "Woman at Point Zero." The author is Nawal El Saadawi. I urge you to read it and be with us.

  • 11:20:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about a novel originally written in Arabic published in English in 1983. It's titled "Woman at Point Zero." It's by the feminist and psychiatrist and novelist and writer Nawal El Saadawi. She herself spent time in an Egyptian prison taken up in a huge mass. The novel focuses on a woman who is about to be hanged. She is going to lose her life because she has murdered her pimp. And the novelist, the author spent time in a prison with a woman like this. She has fictionalized the story but it is quite a novel. Samer, is this an anti-Islam novel?

  • 11:21:22

    SHEHATAI don't think so. I think that if you read the novel carefully -- and now I think many of us have read it multiple times -- you notice that she is critical of the characters' understanding -- kind of primitive understanding of Islam. But nowhere in the novel does she criticize Islam as such. I mean, she clearly takes to task, for example, her uncle and her uncle's wife's understanding of how husbands should treat their wives and so on. But nowhere in the novel does she come out, you know, clearly and attribute the blame to all of the things that she suffered to Islam as such. So I don't think it's an anti-Islam novel.

  • 11:22:03

    HATEMBut let me add that...

  • 11:22:04


  • 11:22:04

    HATEM...it's really about patriarchy. And she's very clear. It's man -- I mean, even though I'm kind of critical of this definition of patriarchy as just men because, I mean, not only men are complicit in this. Some -- obviously men benefit from the patriarchal system but you cannot really -- I mean, you cannot then present this as a war between men and women. Even though sometimes Nawal El Saadawi, certainly this novel is an example, it's all -- I mean Firdaus says, I hate all men. But when you look closely, I mean, women have not exactly been sort of innocent of some of the pain inflicted on her.

  • 11:22:47

    HATEMHer first pimp was a woman. And then of course there was the wife of her uncle who...

  • 11:22:53


  • 11:22:54

    HATEMSo, I mean, it's not exactly that you can lay all the blame and sort of all the injustices at the feet of man.

  • 11:23:01

    REHMAnd Mahnaz, what her uncle in complicity with his wife does is to marry Firdaus off to a much, much older man.

  • 11:23:19

    AFKHAMIYes. And to actually support what Mervat was saying. It's about patriarchy. And the husband, the uncle, every man that she deals with has to do with patriarchy but not specific men so much, but as the structure, the structure of power relationships. But I think when you asked before, Mervat (sic) is very much and very solidly a secular person. She definitely believes that there really should not be a theocracy or a religious government in any society. However, she does talk about reinterpreting text that empower women, reinterpreting the Hadis (sp?) to empower women because...

  • 11:24:15

    REHMAnd you're talking now about Nawal El Saadawi.

  • 11:24:18

    AFKHAMIThat's right. That's right, yes.

  • 11:24:20

    REHMAs we look at the novel, how does Firdaus first become a prostitute, Mervat?

  • 11:24:33

    HATEMI mean, she becomes a different kind of -- I mean, okay. The novel is a journey of sorts of Firdaus. At the beginning she is made into a prostitute by this man after she flees from her husband who sort of beats her. She basically encounters this man who takes her on and starts pimping her. And then after she flees again from this particular -- Bayoumi is his name -- and then she meets Sharifa -- interesting name for a pimp because Sharifa in Arabic means honest and honorable. And she too pimps Firdaus.

  • 11:25:24

    HATEMAnd Firdaus in these two instances of being a prostitute has -- I mean, basically is being pimped by others and is given no money...

  • 11:25:34


  • 11:25:35

    HATEM...for basically sex work, because prostitution is work. And it is sex work as in -- it's an activity that some vulnerable working class women are coerced into because of the lack of availability of other options. Even though in the case of Firdaus, she has a high school certificate which eventually entitles her also to office work. This is when she decides that prostitution, even if she begins to sort of take money for the sex work that she performs, is not respectable. Actually one of her clients said, you are not...

  • 11:26:15

    REHM...says that to her.

  • 11:26:17

    HATEM...you're not a respectable woman. And so she decides, okay, I'm going to use my high school certificate to get a respectable job. And then of course, in that particular job she begins also a critique of what happens to women in lowly jobs in governments and how they're not well paid, They're not also as respected as one would expect. But at the same time she certainly has autonomy. And she has a certain degree of social acceptance in -- at her work.

  • 11:26:51


  • 11:26:52

    SHEHATAWell, no, that's completely correct. And, in fact, Saadawi or the author in this book refers to the work that Firdaus does as a body machine. At one point she says she's a body machine. And also I think it's interesting to note how much Firdaus values and takes pride in the education and the secondary certificate that she has, that she's earned, that she carries around with her and that is supposed to be, and in her eyes, a mark of her respectability and accomplishment.

  • 11:27:22

    SHEHATAAnd of course one feels great pain when others ridicule her. And she says to them, well I have a secondary certificate and I have a merit award. And she was an excellent student, we learned at the beginning. And she was the seventh in the country and the second in her class and had so much potential. And of course earlier in the novel when her future is in front of her, she has aspirations and she thinks...

  • 11:27:48

    REHMAnd she has a sympathetic teacher.

  • 11:27:50

    SHEHATAShe has a sympathetic teacher, and of course things go horribly wrong as a result of all of the terrible treatment, inhumanity that she suffers from her parents, from her uncle, from her pimps and the people that she encounters.

  • 11:28:06

    REHMShe really does have ambition to go on to the university. Her teacher Iqbal offers compassion when she sees her crying one night at the school. And she is asking herself, will I go to university? But the uncle finds out the university will mean that she will associate with men, that men go to university. I mean, talk about hypocrisy. Talk about the way that this young woman is abused and yet here is her uncle saying, you can't go to university. Not only because of money but because there are men there, Mahnaz.

  • 11:29:03

    AFKHAMIThat's absolutely true. And it's amazing that even today, you know, it's happening that people are saying that men and women must be segregated and that this is the underlying emphasis what Nawal tries to even talk about and to discuss even today. But what was interesting also, Diane, was that the two people who helped Firdaus were women. The teacher who helped her when she needed it and established that communication, the human contact that she needed and gave her that pride in her accomplishment that she talked about, and the certificate that she carried with her and so forth.

  • 11:29:56

    AFKHAMIAnd Sharifa, because Sharifa was the one who, even though she did take advantage of her but nevertheless, the eye contact and the look and the glance that she so much required and wished and saw in her mother was also established with Sharifa. And Sharifa was the one who made her -- from the description at the beginning of the novel where she thought that she has a fat round face and a big nose, it came to her that she was a beautiful woman.

  • 11:30:30

    REHMThat's what I wanted to ask you all. Do you see her as a beautiful woman?

  • 11:30:40

    HATEMI'm not sure if Nawal describes her as physically beautiful. She is certainly a striking woman with her own opinions of the world, of herself, of her relations to others of the society within which she operates. She's also critical of key institutions. I mean, she's someone who is definitely not your average sort of passive...

  • 11:31:10

    REHMBut what does she look like, Samer?

  • 11:31:13

    SHEHATAWell, I mean, there's no description -- detailed description but I think that you are completely correct. One, we learn that she is incredibly dignified and she respects herself. And this comes out from the very beginning. She doesn't fear death. And she says, quite explicitly, that she's done nothing wrong. And so she is proud, she's dignified, she powerful. And I think there is evidence that she is very attractive. All kinds of men want her and are willing to pay any kind of price. As you implied earlier, her uncle's wife feels almost jealous of her.

  • 11:31:49

    SHEHATAAnd, in fact, in the novel Saadawi implies that the uncle's wife isn't terribly attractive and that in comparison Firdaus is. So I think that she is a beautiful woman in an encompassing meaning of that word.

  • 11:32:03

    REHMThere are some who criticize the novel for being too anti-male. What do you think Mahnaz?

  • 11:32:13

    AFKHAMII think it is very anti-male, but I think this is sort of a spirit of the times in terms of the radical feminism of the time. And, you know, we've experienced it, some of us, in the movement. And I've been in places where hundreds of women are sitting and women are talking. And a couple of men enter and they were shooed out because they were taught to stop dialogue. So there is that spirit because you have to get attention. And Nawal was trying to get -- be provocative, to get the attention to the oppression and to the relationships that existed. But…

  • 11:32:59

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Mervat, you wanted to add something.

  • 11:33:06

    HATEMI wanted to add something about her looks.

  • 11:33:09

    REHMOh, good.

  • 11:33:09

    HATEMI don't really think Nawal El Saadawi would give that much value to looks. I think she put...

  • 11:33:16

    REHMOh, that's interesting.

  • 11:33:17

    HATEM...she put emphasis on -- I mean, in this case not just the fact that she was good in school, that she has managed to find a voice. She also offers us these very powerful critiques of institutions that we take for granted, I mean, the family, marriage. I mean, because Firdaus actually offers these very pointed critical evaluations of what middle class women think of marriage. And whether or not that, in fact, is a useful way of characterizing that institution.

  • 11:34:03

    REHMSamer, do you have something from the book that you'd like to read for us?

  • 11:34:10

    SHEHATAI do. I mean, it's not a long passage. This is an incredibly powerful book but Saadawi has an economy of pros which is quite blunt at times.

  • 11:34:18

    REHMYes, yes.

  • 11:34:19

    SHEHATAAnd this is a passage towards the beginning of the book when Firdaus is still in school. And she is talking about what she's learning in her history books about world leaders and so on. And I thought it was quite interesting and reminded me of something else I had read. She writes, "I discovered that all of these rulers were men. What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power. They were men who sewed corruption on the earth and plundered their peoples, men endowed with a loud voice and a capacity for persuasion, for choosing sweet words and shooting poisoned arrows.

  • 11:35:01

    SHEHATAThus the truth about them was revealed only after their deaths. And as a result I discovered that history repeated itself with a foolish obstinacy." And I think this, again, gets at her views of men but also powerful leaders and heads of state. And certainly I think this is Saadawi's view of the presidents of Egypt and of men in power more generally.

  • 11:35:24

    AFKHAMIAbsolutely. That's a beautiful statement of that feeling. But if you don't mind, I want to go back to her looks, Firdaus. I think it one of those things that I think Saadawi wants to say, that when you have very little self confidence, you see yourself in the eyes of the others. And you see yourself as plain or ugly. She doesn't want to emphasize the importance of beauty above other things.

  • 11:35:55

    AFKHAMIBut she also -- this transformation in her self image, which I think is reflected actually in her success as someone who men admire and desire -- it's even described when she was walking with a wet outfit in the street at night...

  • 11:36:12

    REHM...people looking at her.

  • 11:36:14

    AFKHAMI...and the man was in the car seeing her in this -- her body and her face -- all of that is indication that she was a good looking woman. But more importantly, how she felt ugly because she didn't have self confidence because she didn't think highly of her and because people didn't really look at her before that, you know, before she gained the confidence. She didn't actually reflect and have that shining eyes and that face that she really did possess.

  • 11:36:49

    REHMGo ahead.

  • 11:36:50

    HATEMDiane, the fact that we're spending so much time on her looks is really an indication of the way women are generally defined by -- in gender terms as having to be beautiful, as this is one of the first things that are noticed about women. But -- so the fact that we're paying so much attention and time to this is simply an indication of the gender definitions of all men or women basically.

  • 11:37:23

    REHMMervat Hatem. She is professor of political science at Howard University and the author of "Literature, Gender and Nation-Building in Nineteenth-Century Egypt." Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, we're talking about the novel "Woman at Point Zero" written by the Egyptian author, feminist, activist Nawal El Saadawi. And here in the studio Mahnaz Afkhami, founder and president of The Women's Learning Partnership. She's former minister of Women's Affairs in Iran. Samer Shehata is associate professor of Middle East politics at the University of Oklahoma. He's editor of the book "Islamist Politics in the Middle East." And Mervat Hatem, professor of political science at Howard University. Again, that title, "Woman at Point Zero."

  • 11:41:06

    REHMHere is our first email from Mashid (sp?) who says, "Could the story of Firdaus be analogous to the story of Egypt as a nation?" Samer.

  • 11:41:22

    SHEHATAWell, there is a history of women representing the nation in Egypt and elsewhere. It's not clear to me that that's what Saadawi's goal is. I mean, this isn't really a nationalist novel. This is a novel about oppression, about patriarchy, about social inequality and injustice because there's a tremendous amount of that. But I don't see it being, you know, formulated as a novel about Egypt.

  • 11:41:49

    AFKHAMII think that even though Nawal may not have intended it so much as that, it can be read as that. Because in terms of her view of colonialism and the way that Egypt was treated by other powers and so forth, it could be -- the oppression and the limitation and the powerlessness could be applied to it.

  • 11:42:17

    REHMMervat, let's talk about money and power and how they come to be equated in this novel.

  • 11:42:28

    HATEMWell, I mean, obviously for a prostitute, basically this is sex work. This is a way of earning an income for some women whose opportunities in life are not very good. It's ironic that in this case Firdaus has a high school certificate, which of course entitles her to mobility into the middle class. But the fact that she's given up by her uncle and his wife and had to marry an older man who abuses her means that her only way of escape is to flee, not having any kind of protection from any other institution.

  • 11:43:20

    HATEMAnd I want here to emphasize that money becomes important as a source of income, but it's the family really that provides protection. And especially in the absence of any assistance by the state to not just women, but sort of to citizens in cases of unemployment or in cases of homelessness that doesn't exist yet in a developing country like Egypt. And therefore, it's having to sell one's own body and then, I think Saadawi in a way romanticizes prostitution. I mean, because after all it is this transforming experience that allows Firdaus to emerge as a strong character.

  • 11:44:16

    REHM...as a wealthy women with power herself.

  • 11:44:21

    SHEHATAWell, that's right. In fact, there's this interesting section in the novel in which Firdaus says that when she went to a restaurant and purchased a meal with her own money for the very first time, the food tasted different, you know. And so there's no question that power is money. But she realizes, of course, that the money cannot buy respectability. And this, of course, is what happens when one of her customers Di'aa, a journalist, says to her, but you're not respectable. And of course then her life is changed upside down and this is when she tries to get a job as a low level clerical workers in a company...

  • 11:45:01

    REHMAnd she begins wearing shabby clothes and...

  • 11:45:05

    SHEHATAAnd she's respectable but she again sees that she is oppressed and victimized and exploited and earns a meager living. And there's a wonderful passage in which she describes her horrific living conditions where, you know, she doesn't have a bathroom, where she takes public transport. It reminded me of the public transport in Egypt in the 1970s and '80s in which, you know, the buses are teeming and so on and incredibly crowded. And so, yes, money is powerful but it can't buy her respectability.

  • 11:45:37

    REHMAnd let's open the phones. First to St. Louis, Mo. and to Barbara. You're on the air.

  • 11:45:47

    BARBARAHi, Diane. First of all, very quickly, I just want to say that my daughter, a university student, called me so excited a couple weeks ago because they had just released the spring speaker series at her university and you are on it. And she was just thrilled. And I said, let me know the date because I'm driving down to listen to her.

  • 11:46:07

    REHMOh, thank you.

  • 11:46:09

    BARBARABut I tuned into the program just as you were talking about the hypocrisy of the father who was abusing the girl and yet didn't want her going to school with males. And I just have to tell you my own story. I'm 57 years old. I was abused by multiple male authority figures throughout my childhood. I was raised in what I have coined a viciously Catholic home in which my sisters and I were second class citizens to my brothers, handed down for generations. And my mother was a second class citizen to my father, et cetera, et cetera.

  • 11:46:44

    BARBARAMy art teacher at my school, a woman, had secured a four-year free-ride scholarship for me to study art. And my father refused to let me accept it because he would've had to fill out a financial needs statement. And in his own words it was nobody's g-d business how much money he made. So I put myself through community college studying graphic design and illustration and had to take figure-drawing classes in which there were nude male and female models. And my father almost had an apoplexy thinking that his daughter was going to be looking at the nude male form in a classroom, even though I was a victim of abuse for my entire childhood.

  • 11:47:27

    REHMI understand well you're statement. And, you know, it's not too say that simply because we're speaking about en Egyptian novelist or a novel about Egyptian women, that it's confined to one country or one society. We know it happens everywhere. And, Barbara, your story really does contribute to our thinking because it seems to me that Nawal El Saadawi, while she is writing about Egypt, is also writing about women in general, Mervat.

  • 11:48:20

    HATEMAnd I think it might explain also why this novel has become very popular reading in women study programs because it isn't just about an Egyptian woman.

  • 11:48:32


  • 11:48:32

    HATEMIt's about problems and issues that women have and face in different societies as well within families. Obviously also the inequalities -- class inequalities, that sort of make working class women more vulnerable than others. And then the kinds of inequalities that exist in the family, the romanticization of the family as a harmonious unit, that is a characterization that feminists in particular have been trying to deconstruct. Not to debunk the family but to also understand some of the conflicts that exist and which need to be addressed if it is to provide women the kind of security and protection that it claims to deliver.

  • 11:49:25

    REHMMervat, you were born and raised in Cairo. What did you experience as a child growing up and as a young women being educated?

  • 11:49:38

    HATEMActually, one of the things that Nawal El Saadawi does with Firdaus is to give her this sense of pride in her own education. And I was born in the 1950s when actually this became a mantra for all young women, that education is not only going to set you free by broadening your horizon, but it was also going to provide you with a source of income and independence. And was part of what an agenda for the liberation of women was all about.

  • 11:50:18

    REHMInteresting. And Mahnaz, as someone who is the former minister of women's affairs in Iran, tell us about your experience.

  • 11:50:31

    AFKHAMIIt's very similar, Diane. It's basically the way people are -- young women -- girl childs are treated, educated, grow up, go to school, possibly get employment and so forth -- married. The patterns are very similar. I wouldn't say just in Muslim majority countries but across the world. You're, in some ways, shaped and formed in very similar ways. Some places of course there is a lot more of oppression and...

  • 11:51:10

    REHMBut for you, what was growing up in Iran like?

  • 11:51:17

    AFKHAMIWell, I happened to have been a very privileged child. I had a large family, sort of a network of people living very close next door do each other. We grew up, you know, having a very comfortable life and good schooling. I went to a Zoroastrian school. Got a lot of religious cross cultural life but -- and values. But, you know, my whole lifelong career has been with women at the grassroots, and right now in 20 countries, most of them Muslim majority. And as we sit and exchange experiences together, we see the similarities that exist.

  • 11:52:05

    AFKHAMIOf course, in the case of this particular experience that we're looking at today in Nawal's novel, it's very much heightened and very much starkly presented, but at different levels, as we heard from Barbara...

  • 11:52:25


  • 11:52:25

    AFKHAMI...and hear from others, it exists across. And it is about money and power. But what she says, I think, in the novel -- and applies again everywhere -- is that even though money and power are connected, even though she finally gets thrown on the streets because the wife of the uncle was rich and he needed that support, even though every man seems to be going after money, and that's related to power, that we should stand back. Because Firdaus doesn't think that money's all important. She wants respect. She wants a choice. So values ought to be broader than that for men and women.

  • 11:53:06

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Someone has written in saying, "Diane, you yourself are an Arab American woman. Does your personal experience and knowledge give you particular insight into this novel?" I can only tell you that my own experience was that while I too was surrounded by a huge Arab family, whom I loved and adored, it was the men in the family only who were allowed to go on to University. I was told that I could not and therefore did not. I had a fabulous high school education but not university as a result.

  • 11:54:08

    REHMEgypt's interim government has named three women ministers. Is that a hopeful sign, Samer?

  • 11:54:20

    SHEHATAIt's not necessarily a hopeful sign. I mean, I think it is the case that of course compared to the government led by Mr. Morsi, there are more women ministers. I think there might actually be four women ministers. And of course we've seen that in the past. Why I'm a little bit skeptical of that is that we've also seen oppressive authoritarian regimes use a kind of superficial progressiveness with regard to women to win points among Western audiences and so on.

  • 11:54:53

    SHEHATAI mean, we saw this in Egypt under Mr. Mubarak who put in a quota for women in parliament. But he wasn't progressive in any way. And we had Suzanne Mubarak, his wife, masquerading as some kind of a feminist trying to help poor women and poor children and so on, when of course she was, you know, stealing the country's wealth. And we see this in Morocco as well, and in other countries where there is an attempt to use feminism to gain, you know, points when there's really little sincerity with regard to helping women, you know, more broadly.

  • 11:55:24

    REHMSo I want to make sure to let our listeners know that the next Readers' Review is going to be on August 21. We're going to talk about the book "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." And that of course is by Muriel Spark. I do hope you'll join us. I did want to get that announcement in. You wanted to say something about those three women.

  • 11:55:57

    AFKHAMIYes. I think it's very important to have that. The governments who are very conservative on women's rights don't do that kind of thing. It's very important to have women, even if they're going to be token, it's -- the very presence makes the difference. You don't want to have women only as tokens but it's very important to have the possibility to sit at the table with other people. And...

  • 11:56:27

    REHMWell, and we shall wait to see what this current military government does and whether it stays in power, whether it really does resort to another dictatorship that is oppressive of women. The book we've been talking about in this hour, it's titled "Woman at Point Zero," the author Nawal El Saadawi. Mahnaz Afkhami, Samer Shehata, Mervat Hatem, thank you all so much. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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