Tool That Men
To begin, the symbolism of the eyes represent fear. Throughout the novel, Firdaus describes the act of seeing as an act of possession. Firdaus’ first description of eyes in the novel is the memory of her mother’s eyes watching her, “They were eyes that watched me...they could see me, and follow me wherever I went, so that if I faltered while learning to walk they would hold me up” (Saadawi, 21). As a young girl, this act of surveillance by her mother is comforting; she feels that living under the surveillance of her mother is what protects her from the deception of reality that women face. As Firdaus matures into a young woman, the act of being watched assumes a distinct meaning. Now, whenever Firdaus senses eyes watching her, she feels threatened “I was not confronted with a hand holding a knife or razor, but only with two eyes” (55). The contrast between the acts of surveillance of her mother compared to men’s possessive gazes represent the maturation of Firdaus and the development of her understanding of the oppressive society in which she lives, as well as the power of men to manipulate her ambitions and lifestyle. This further exemplifies how women struggle to live a honorable life in a society where women are obstructed by fear. When Firdaus flees from her uncle’s house, she encounters a man who violates her by running his eyes up and down her body. She describes the man’s eyes as “moving towards me very slowly, closer and closer...this feeling of terror which had swept my whole being” (55). Firdaus’ endeavor is to claim her body as her own; she struggles to navigate the hypocrisy in patriarchal societies in which men use fear and power for their own purposes. The more she realizes the deception that men impose on women, the more trapped she feels. This is significant as her realization of her position in society only serves to further hinder her ambitions and sense of self, as she becomes increasingly aware of how insignificant her opinion is in society, which Saadawi utilizes to emphasize the corruption of the Egyptian society. Even during the most mundane task such as mealtimes, where one expects to eat with peace and comfort, Sheikh Mahmoud watches her. As a result, Firdaus becomes insecure about eating. This is significant because it shows the domination of man in society by exemplifying how women are trained to be submissive towards men. This situation exemplifies submissiveness because it demonstrates how Firdaus is subconsciously more careful of her actions around the presence of her husband, even for streamline tasks like eating. To Firdaus, all men are the same- they defile her using their gaze. In doing so, men act as if she is their property. Until she went to prison, Firdaus lived in a state of constant surveillance in which every action was subjected to the opinion of men. This creates a condition of submission and fear, as Firdaus is constantly scolded and abused for any action that is not acceptable to men. As this fear is established, men are empowered through their gaze because it elicits control. The state of surveillance that Firdaus endures is one of the many tools that the patriarchy utilize to assert and maintain order.
Furthermore, prostitution is an illusion of power for Firdaus. She first turns to prostitution to escape the restraining marriage that stripped her of her free will. When speaking of her experiences as a prostitute, Firdaus says, “She opened my eyes to life…She probed with a searching light revealing obscure areas of myself, unseen features of my face and body, making me aware of them, understand them, see them for the first time.” (58). Her first impression of her experiences as a prostitute gave her a newfound sense of self, which prematurely led her to associating prostitution with liberty and control over herself. By viewing prostitution as empowering, she turns a blind eye to the faults in her actions: offering herself to a man in itself lowers her status and allows men to have authority over her. As a result, she believes that she finally is taking control of her life. The ability to be able to choose from the men and say “no” to some men gives her a sense of power. By realizing this, she deceives herself into thinking that it is her who has control over herself and not them. While prostitution is typically an ensnaring situation, Firdaus seems to achieve a sense of self-worth and freedom she had never experienced before. Through this, her perception of prostitution as a positive force allows her to feel superior. However, when she asks Sharifa why she doesn’t feel anything, Sharifa replies, “You will get nothing out of feeling except pain” (60). This lack of pleasure allows Firdaus to realize that the only pleasure she will experience as a prostitute is derived from materialistic things. When men would ask her if she feels pleasure, she would yearn to object and retaliate, but out of fear of what they might do, she complies. Her lack of pleasure and emotion led her to realize her loss of power. It is not until Di’aa tells Firdaus, “You are not respectable”, (76) that she realizes that she needs to get a “respectable”job in order to attain control of herself. However, a “respectable” job is one where she would work under a man’s authority; this is significant because it shows that men have constructed a cycle of power in society that women cannot escape.
Moreover, the motif of money allows Firdaus to further understand the implications of power. Growing up, she was never given money by her father, uncle, or husband in attempt to keep her in their grasp. Therefore, money begins to take the form as an elusive and powerful object that only the men have control over. As a prostitute, she learns that her body is a commodity and holds monetary value to men. This is ironic because recognizing that is reinforcing men’s dominance in society; in other words, Firdaus surrenders herself in her effort to gain independence. While acquiring money for herself was a huge step in working towards independence, she overlooks that as a prostitute her value and salary is based off the judgement of men. In this way, money is a tool that men use to exercise their corruption. Firdaus realizes that “...the least deluded of all woman was the prostitute...marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering for women” (118). The use of the words “least deluded” implies that regardless of any situation Firdaus finds herself in, she is still under the influence of men and their judgement. Simply having money lended power to Firdaus, but when Firdaus was able to demand $2000 from the prince and reject him, she understood that money was not an all powerful object. It was the control of the flow of money that was powerful, and only men could do that in her society.