Jehan Sadat, widow of the late Mohamed Anwar Sadat, third president of Egypt, is an icon in her own right. As Egypt’s first lady, her achievements in the public sphere, not to mention her exceptional poise and elegance, have left their mark and ranked her among the country’s most influential first ladies. eniGma Magazine sat down with this remarkable lady to find out more about her unique experience and the challenges she has faced.
Despite getting married at the tender age of 15, Sadat took her role as a wife very seriously from the start. She married for love and was aware of the challenges that would come with marrying Anwar Sadat, who was much older than she was and whose life was quite complicated, both personally and politically. Throughout their marriage, she always stood by her husband, supporting him in adversity and sharing in his triumphs. “My contribution as a wife was to provide a calm atmosphere at home, so that my husband would have the space to be productive. I never liked to bring up our problems with the kids or even my own problems. This allowed him to concentrate on his work and make plans carefully and efficiently,” Sadat explains. She is quick to add, “I never considered myself to be a traditional wife, but rather an equal partner.”
Even though the roles of the first ladies who preceded her were restricted to public appearances and welcoming diplomats, Sadat decided to take it a step further to the point where she could actually make a difference in the lives of her people. “I had a role in Egyptian society and I was the only first lady at the time to do that. I asked myself ‘should my role only be confined to formalities, such as hosting dinners for guests or welcoming them at the airport with my husband, or should I actually do social work and contribute to society?’ I had already been involved in social work before Anwar became president, so I felt that I was given a platform where my work could be more impactful,” she proudly states. Wasting no time at all, she went to the countryside in an attempt to provide a better life for the people there. It was a formidable task, but Sadat was relentless and refused to take a backseat to the presidency. She recalls that “women, children and the disabled there all needed to have a better quality of life. I was lucky to have had a strong team of women who shared the same passion and had same commitment that I had. We worked hand in hand to make a difference. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Although it might have been hard to attempt to change the mindset of communities that weren’t well-educated and sought to oppress women and shun the disabled, Sadat stayed true to her purpose. According to her, “Charity and social work pay you back in happiness. It was more than enough for me to lay my head on the pillow at the end of the day, completely content that I had helped people in some way. I find the happiness and inner peace I get form doing this kind of work to be very rewarding.”
It’s quite remarkable how far Sadat was willing to go to fulfil her role as the first lady of Egypt. She quickly became renowned worldwide for her ceaseless efforts to improve the wellbeing of the Egyptian people. “I was once on a visit to Germany, which was much more advanced than Egypt, and the first lady there jokingly told me that I was causing her problems because the public there, having heard about what I was doing in Egypt, had been challenging her to match my work,” she proudly recalls. Despite this, Sadat doesn’t expect every first lady to follow in her footsteps. She believes that a first lady’s activism is contingent upon many factors and that each first lady has to find the appropriate role for her. “It all depends on the circumstances of the country. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to make my contributions; however, if the country had been going through a lot of turmoil, instability and insecurity, other issues might have been prioritized,” she explains.
Sadat believes that all women can play a vital role in changing their status. She, herself, has been in the forefront of many movements that advocate women’s rights. “The National Council for Women (NCW) is one of many organizations that seek equality for women. It is thanks to them that several women in Egypt have entered the Parliament. It is through organizations like these that new legislation can be made to empower women and allow them to take their rightful place in society. I am very hopeful that change will happen because of their tireless efforts. In 1975, I personally headed a delegation comprised of women who included Mervat Tallawy, former chairwoman of NCW, to represent women in the UN World Conference on Women. I believe that women have the power to change their circumstances, not only for each other, but for their children as well. After all, women are helpful by nature; if given the opportunity, they can do wonders,” she affirms.
Indeed, Sadat has lived by example and was instrumental in the enactment of the Personal Status Law in Egypt. The law, often referred to as “Jehan’s Law”, deals with family matters such as divorce, marriage and child custody. “Before the Personal Status Law, women had no rights to speak of. Since then, further additions to the law have been made to give women the sense of security and peace of mind they deserve. The articles of the law aim to provide Egyptian families with as much stability as possible,” she says, adding, “Anwar Sadat himself also believed in gender equality and took measures to ensure that women take their rightful place in society. Anwar changed a part of the constitution to give women a chance to participate in and represent the government in every governorate. He also used to make sure that I got all my rights as an equal partner to him, even in front of crowds. When he first came into power, he had an official gathering at Abdeen Palace, where he had invited all the ambassadors to explain Egypt’s status and his plans for Egypt. As soon as we entered the palace to meet all the guests, he placed his hand on my back to move me forward, ahead of him. This shocked all the attendees as people had been accustomed to the first lady trailing behind her husband. This was a way for him to show how much he respected women. If it hadn’t been for Anwar Sadat, the Personal Status Law would not have been passed to this day,” she proudly states.
It is Sadat’s firm belief that education can make all the difference in Egypt. In fact, she has led several initiatives to support education because “a nation cannot rise or develop without it. Education is the most valuable gift you can give a woman and the nation. An educated woman will raise a worthy generation that can improve the standards of the country.” And Sadat practices what she preaches. Because she was married at a young age, she was only able to attend university when her children were old enough not to depend on her. She recalls, “I ended up going to college with my kids when I was 40 years old. They were studying in the English section at university and I was studying in the Arabic one. Even though our classes were different, we were still pretty competitive. Anwar was supportive and encouraged me to go after what I wanted. I put an extraordinary effort into my studies to prove myself and to be a positive role model. I succeeded in doing this and many people around me followed my lead and completed their education, including my driver.”
Jehan Sadat’s focus on education continues to this day. She is currently on the board of trustees at Al Nahda University in Beni Suef, her hometown, and at Future University in Egypt. Her love for the country and her unwavering hope for a better Egypt is the driving force behind everything she does.