Shocking my students…

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009 by Rachel



My students had summer reading: Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi. I read the book the other week, as I was lucky enough to have a setup small classroom “conversation” with Saadawi during orientation. This isn’t a book that I would say I necessarily enjoyed. At 114 pages, I finished it easily in a few hours. The writing is okay, though repetitive and perhaps overly dramatic at points. The storyline is simple: Saadawi interviews Firdaus, a prostitute sentenced to death for murdering her pimp. Saadawi’s “interview”/commentary serves as bookends to Firdaus’s story, which is told from Firdaus’s perspective in first person.


Saadawi says that she considers this book to be more of a history than a novel. When asked why she thought this was an important convocation text for freshmen to read, she responded with two answers. 1) There is Firdaus in every woman. 2) Prostitution is at the heart of patriarchy and capitalism. I enjoyed the book more than I enjoyed hearing Saadawi’s political views. In particular, I didn’t appreciate her stance that we (as Americans) shouldn’t provide aid in any situation to any foreign countries. I’m a firm believer that if people are in trouble, we should help, regardless of if they decide to use our help (ala AIDS medicines not making its way to the people who actually need it in Africa). But I’m off on a tangent, and that’s an issue that deserves more attention than I can give it at this point.


This is a book about prostitution, abuse, molestation/rape, and the hardships of being a woman in Egypt. This is not a book that I would have ever chosen to be the first thing that my students see, though I do see some reason behind its selection. Today was the first day we discussed the book. What I didn’t expect/anticipate was having to switch gears and turn into “sex-ed” for a minute.




The issue is really just two sentences that are passed by very quickly: “Then she brought a woman who was carrying a small knife or maybe a razor blade. They cut off a piece of flesh from between my thighs” (Saadawi 12).


A page later, as Firdaus is being molested by her uncle, she says “He was doing to me what Mohammadain had done to me before. In fact, he was doing even more, but I no longer felt the strong sensation of pleasure that radiated from an unknown and yet familiar part of my body. I closed my eyes and tried to reach the pleasure I had known before, but in vain. It was if I could no longer recall the exact spot from which it used to arise, or as though a part of me, of my being, was gone and would never return” (Saadawi 13). While obviously the molestation adds to some of the distance that Firdaus feels, I don’t think we can ignore this “missing part,” which ends up recurring throughout the book as Firdaus has sex with many many men.


The female circumcision and its corresponding destruction of all sexual pleasure, as well as its effect on Firdaus’s ultimate decision to become a prostitute, went over most of my students’ heads. One student asked about the cutting of flesh, and I saw that she was not the only student confused about this issue. I tried not to show it, but I was embarrassed. As someone who has studied body modification extensively, I still don’t consider myself an expert on female circumcision, and I’m not quite sure I’m in the right role to be informing students about genital mutilation. I tried to address it as objectively and clinically as possible. I warned them before I started talking, “Cover your ears if you’re worried you’ll be grossed or offended.” Of course, most of their jaws dropped after my explanation, and a few covered their mouths in horror. When I asked beforehand if this topic even needed an explanation, a few of the people shrugged. These were the eyes that opened the widest.


I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I said clitoris in the second week of school. I am mortified that they’re all calling their mothers tonight and saying “Guess what I learned in English class today!” Still. I don’t think I overstepped my boundaries as an instructor. This was clearly part of the book which deserved some discussion. This was also a chance for me to introduce some level of cultural relativity, in that the whole idea of right of passage versus violation of rights is obviously something really big for us to think about. I lean towards more of the violation angle, but I tried not to let that show.


This happens more than you realize when you’re teaching. You just don’t realize how sheltered students are from so much of what happens in the world. They’ll get there eventually, but this first semester is really all about exposure.


  1. I’m a little shocked that there are college students who don’t know about female genital mutilation (or circumcision, if you prefer, though I think that term is inaccurate).

    I do think you handled it well, though. What a memorable first day!

  2. It sounds like you handled this appropriately, but, yeah, kind of a surprising thing to have to explain in English class.

  3. I’m wondering how well I could have even explained it! Think you handled that well :)

  4. clitoris, clitoris, clitoris! lol This is something I hadn’t considered. I guess I have to try to remember how much I didn’t know when I was only 18.

  5. Are you teaching freshmen? I’m kind of surprised at their lack of knowledge but I guess I shouldn’t be.

  6. Oh, the surprises will just keep coming. I think the way to manage teaching is that you never know what to expect, so at least you aren’t bracing yourself for something painful… We read Woman at Point Zero when I was an undergrad, though I can’t remember for which class.

  7. You have absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. I think, in college, that you have to be trying to be inappropriate to actually cross that line. You were speaking to adults, and if they want to cloister themselves away from reality, college is not the place to do it.

    That said, I am amazed as well that there are still people who don’t know this sort of thing happens. Although I’d like to point out that circumcision is mutilation for men too. Granted, we don’t lose all sensation, but the majority of nerve endings are in the foreskin and there is no more medical a reason to remove it than for removing fingernails to stop them from getting hangnails or infections.

    I point that out not to trivialize the abominations that are being done to women, but to point out that circumcision, in general, is a terrible thing.

  8. Thank you all for all of your support! I’m glad to have positive reinforcement from so many of my peers about such a weird situation/class.

    We’re finishing discussion on the book tomorrow/Friday. While Wednesday’s class focused mostly on character/plot/general first reactions, I hope to gear the discussion more towards plot, the ending of the book, and the implications of prostitution.

    Sorry if these responses are a bit scattered–end of the week is approaching and my brain is not at 100%.

    First, this is a class of 100% Freshmen, 100% from Georgia. No outsiders here.

    Margosita: I do feel, like you, that it is more appropriately termed mutilation, but I don’t feel comfortable imposing that viewpoint on my students. I’ll leave that ethical decision up to them.

    Keith: I don’t think your point trivializes the issue for women at all.
    Male circumcision did come up in my 10 oclock section. I teach two sections back to back at 9 & 10, and, while female circumcision came up in both, the men were neglected at 9. Maybe it was too early? :)

    I said clearly that I didn’t need to know who in the room who was circumcised and who wasn’t (this caused some nervous laughter, but I didn’t want male students to start revealing THAT about themselves). One student said, “but this is different for guys. It is a cleanliness thing that prevents infection”. I responded with something like “Well, that’s not exactly proven to be the case anymore.” More confused looks, but that was a tangent that I wasn’t ready to tackle.

    It wouldn’t occur to most freshmen to question this about themselves/their partners/the ritual in general, let alone something that happens mostly across an ocean miles away. Hopefully, if anything, Wednesday’s class got some gears turning.

  9. This is an excellent book, and I’m so glad you made it required reading. I read it during freshman year as well, and it was such an eye-opening story. Kudos to you, encouraging the mind-expansion of your students! :)

  10. I didn’t select the convocation text–this was required by the university of ALL freshmen.

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