Saadawi (b. 1931) is an Egyptian woman, a medical doctor, a prolific writer, and the Arabic-speaking world's most outspoken and radical feminist. Without exaggerating, Malti-Douglas writes that "No Arab woman inspires as much emotion as Nawal El Saadawi. No woman in the Middle East has been the subject of more polemic. Certainly, no Arab woman's pen has violated as many sacred enclosures." 1 Malti-Douglas then devotes over two hundred pages to analyzing Saadawi's overheated rhetoric and bad novels, calling on all the usual feminist tropes (title and subtitle give their flavor, as do such chapter headings as "Paradigms of Violation" and "Rewriting Patriarchy").
This predictable feminist lionizing of one of its own holds little interest to the general reader, but Malti-Douglas does raise an intriguing issue when she reports on the clash between Saadawi and her equally leftist intellectual (male) opponents in the Middle East. They would have her stay quiet about the appalling female condition in their countries and try to delegitimize her writings as "Orientalist feminism." To which Malti-Douglas replies that "Anti-imperialism can easily become a trap through which nationalism, while seeking to defend the native against the outsider, really defends those in power in the native society." Saadawi's feminism, in other words, proves a source of unusual sympathy for the West. The importance of these epithets? Another sign of the intellectual left's weakness: caught up in a web of its own inconsistencies, it (unlike the fundamentalist right) cannot even figure out its outlook on the West.