Sadat, Jehan (1933—)

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Sadat, Jehan (1933—)

Egyptian first lady who, unlike wives of previous Egyptian leaders, played a prominent role in Egyptian politics, particularly in advancing the cause of women's rights. Name variations: Gehan Sadat; Jihan Sadat. Born in 1933 in Roda Island, Egypt; daughter of Safwat Raouf (a physician) and Gladys Charles Cotrell; Cairo University, B.A. in Arabic literature, 1978, M.A., 1980, Ph.D. in literary criticism, 1986; married Anwar Sadat (president of Egypt, 1970–81), in 1949 (assassinated 1981); children: Loubna, Noha, Jihan and Gamal.

Jehan Sadat was born on Roda Island in Egypt in 1933, the third of four children, and grew up in a middle-class household in Cairo. Her father Safwat Raouf, an Egyptian doctor, was a practicing Muslim; her British mother Gladys Charles Cotrell was Christian. Jehan's parents met in England while Safwat was at the University of Sheffield studying medicine. Although her mother never converted to Islam or adopted many Arab customs, the Raouf children were raised in the Islamic faith. However, they also ate English breakfasts, had a Christmas tree, and were exposed to many British women, who had much freer lifestyles than did Arabic women. Jehan had a happy childhood. She attended an all-girl government school at the age of 11, and received an excellent education, learning English and classical Arabic, math, science, and many other disciplines.

Following the deaths of two close relatives when she was 13, Jehan turned for solace to the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and became deeply religious. She was also interested in politics and Egyptian nationalism. After World War II, she supported the removal from Egypt of the British, who continued to hold a controlling influence in the country even after the official end of its protectorate status in 1936. Ironically, Jehan's love for her country was in part inspired by her mother's pride in her native Britain, since Jehan desired to emulate her mother's nationalism with her own pride in Egypt.

When Jehan was 15, she accepted an invitation to stay with her aunt in Suez. There she met military hero Anwar Sadat, who was also an ardent nationalist actively fighting for the removal of the British. Twice Jehan's age, Sadat had already experienced a great deal as a soldier. Along with future Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sadat was one of the leaders of the Free Officers Committee, a secret revolutionary society committed to the liberation of Egypt both from the British and from King Farouk's corrupt regime. Sadat had been imprisoned for collaborating with two German spies in 1942, and again in 1946 after being linked to several attacks on pro-British officials, including the assassination of Finance Minister Amin Osman Pasha. Although Anwar had been acquitted of this crime and released from prison, Jehan's parents were still leery of their romance. Besides the age difference and Anwar's revolutionary activities, he was also an impoverished divorcee with three children. Jehan eventually talked her parents into supporting their marriage, which took place in May 1949.

Having been court-martialed after the incident with the German spies, Sadat had to earn a living as a journalist until influential friends restored his army commission in 1950. As a captain stationed in the Sinai Desert, he remained active in the Free Officers Committee. The growing tension between the British and Egyptians developed in many Egyptian circles into an equal resentment towards Farouk, which finally made possible the long-hoped-for revolution. On July 22, 1952, Sadat joined with Nasser in a bloodless coup which forced Farouk from the country and established Nasser as the new Egyptian leader. In 1958, Egypt was renamed the United Arab Republic to reflect Nasser's pan-Arab policies, and Sadat held several high-level positions within the Nasser government. In the course of the tempestuous tenure of Nasser's presidency, during which Egypt became embroiled in military conflicts with Israel over Israel's occupancy of Arab Palestine, Sadat was one of the few officials to remain in Nasser's favor. His strict adherence to Nasser's political philosophies netted him the vice-presidency in 1969 as well as the nickname "Major Yes-Yes." When Nasser died of a heart attack less than a year later, Anwar Sadat ascended to the presidency and Jehan Sadat joined him in the spotlight.

Although political wives were expected to remain out of sight, Jehan was determined not to follow in the footsteps of her passive predecessors. She was well aware of the subservient condition of Egyptian women, who were often valued less than cows in the villages, and early on began advocating for change. In 1967, she set up a cooperative in the village of Talla so peasant women could obtain a degree of economic independence from their husbands by making and selling crafts. To emphasize education for women, Jehan enrolled in Cairo University to study Arabic literature at the age of 41. She graduated in 1978, and went on to receive her master's degree in 1980. She took her examinations on television, both to set an example as an educated woman and to prove that she did not cheat. In 1979, her influence over her husband resulted in the passage of a set of laws, known as "Jehan's Laws," whereby 30 seats in the Egyptian Parliament were set aside for women, and women were granted the power to divorce their husbands for polygamy or repudiation and retain custody of their children.

Somewhat of a politician in her own right, Jehan presided over the meetings of the Monufiya People's Council, a local legislature of the region in which Anwar had grown up, for several years starting in 1969. She brought many improvements to the area through her efforts to increase the number of day-care facilities and for birth-control measures to help stem Egypt's burgeoning overpopulation. She also held several other high-level positions. During the Suez Canal war of 1974, she chaired the Egyptian Red Crescent (similar to the Red Cross) and the Egyptian Blood Bank Society, and was honorary chair of the Supreme Family Planning Council. She was head of the Egyptian Society for Cancer Patients, the Society For Preservation of Egyptian Antiquities, the Scientific Association for Egyptian Women, and the Society for the Welfare of University and Higher Institute Students, which raised funds to buy books and clothes for students. She also established orphanages and a facility for rehabilitating handicapped veterans.

Although the extent of her influence over Anwar Sadat's policies is not known, Jehan supported her husband in his often controversial policy decisions. With Islamic fundamentalism on the rise in the 1970s, Sadat came under fire for aligning himself with Western powers. He had actively sought friendly relations with the United States by divesting Egypt of Soviet officials and diplomatic ties in the early 1970s. While he had pronounced his loyalty to Nasser's pan-Arab policies on taking the office of the president, Sadat changed the country's name from the United Arab Republic to the Arab Republic of Egypt, indicating the primacy of Egyptian interests over those of other Arab countries. But while these decisions alarmed many Arab fundamentalists, it was Sadat's willingness to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel which truly incensed the extremist element in Egypt. Officially signed in 1979, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt resulted in Anwar Sadat's and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, but it also made him numerous enemies. Jehan herself scandalized many with her independence and activism, her Western mannerisms and her willingness to grant personal interviews to Western magazines. (She had, nonetheless, refused to meet with Leah Rabin in 1975 when both were attending the International Women's Year Conference in Mexico City.) Anwar, however, supported her, inviting her to walk next to him in public rather than the traditional five paces behind, and making sure she was the first person to shake hands with visiting dignitaries.

On October 6, 1981, a spectacular military parade was held in Cairo to commemorate the anniversary of the Yom Kippur surprise attack on Israel. Sadat was attired in full uniform and flanked by bodyguards and Egyptian dignitaries. A small band of assassins who had commandeered one of the many passing military vehicles jumped out and approached the reviewing stand, spraying rifle fire at the president and killing him instantly. Amazingly, Vice President Hosni Mubarak, just a few feet away, was not injured. Jehan Sadat, safe behind the bulletproof glass her husband refused to use, could only watch in horror.

Sadat's funeral was attended by a galaxy of Western leaders, including three former U.S. presidents—Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter—but very few Islamic leaders. The streets of Cairo were deserted, as a curfew had been imposed. The shock and regret expressed in Europe and the United States stood in marked contrast to the response in Arab capitals, which ranged from muted to openly joyful.

After Anwar's assassination, Jehan went into seclusion for a year. When she emerged from her period of mourning, she resumed lecturing and doctoral studies at Cairo University. In 1984, the president of the University of South Carolina—which had given Jehan an honorary doctorate in 1979—asked her to teach at the school. She accepted the invitation, and also took on a lectureship at the American University in Washington, D.C. She left the University of South Carolina in 1986 over a salary dispute and became a visiting professor at Radford University in Virginia, earning her doctorate in literary criticism from Cairo University that year as well. In addition to a heavy lecturing schedule, she became a professor of international studies at the University of Maryland in 1993, and endowed a chair there in the name of her dead husband.


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Sadat, Jehan. A Woman of Egypt. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Ruth Savitz , freelance writer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania