News of the death of Jehan Al-Sadat, which was announced this morning in Cairo, came as the last episode in the story of a woman who was always associated with many conflicting images, ranging from grace to malice.
The question of whether she was just a strong woman who had learned early on in life to put her foot down and to speak her mind, or of whether she was a beautiful and a cunning woman who had managed to manoeuvre her way upwards, depended upon who was speaking and to what audience.
But whatever the answers to these questions might be, Sadat was a woman who could not go unheeded, whether as the spouse of one of the Free Officers who had overturned Egypt’s former monarchy in the 1952 Revolution, or the spouse of the president of Egypt throughout the 1970s, or for years after the assassination of her husband Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981 as the former first lady of Egypt.
Sadat, in the accounts of the many who knew her at different times in her life, always managed to impress —or to upset. She was anything but neutral, no matter how graceful she always managed to be.
No one better described her than Ahmed Bahaeddin, a prominent journalist from the 1950s to the 1990s who had the confidence of the Sadat’s. He wrote in his book My Conversations with Sadat, a record of the former president, that “Mrs Sadat had an incredibly strong personal presence.”
A former European ambassador who served in Egypt in the early 2000s went a step further by saying after a dinner in her honour that “when one sees her for the first time, one is not meeting the spouse of an assassinated president, but rather a lady who has her own incredible allure.”
However, this naturally charming woman who could welcome former monarchs, top state officials, or young university students with equal elegance and ease was never just “a lady with her own incredible allure”. On the contrary, she was also a tough woman who had made her own way through life in a way exactly as she wanted irrespective of what anyone else thought or said.
As a girl in Cairo, Sadat, as she herself wrote in her memoir A Woman of Egypt published in the mid-1980s, would explore the streets of her neighbourhood of Manial without feeling intimidated. She attributed her own uninhibited nature to her kind and confident parents.
It was also at this young age that Sadat, as she wrote in her memoir, discovered her passion for politics. Born to a British mother who had endless stories to tell about Winston Churchill, Britain’s leader in World War II, it was only natural for this young and non-conformist woman, as she was in the 1940s, to fall in love with Anwar Sadat, a political rebel who had been to jail for his involvement in resisting the British occupation of Egypt.
A file photo taken on January 1, 1949, late Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, poses with his 16-year-old bride Jihan, on their wedding day in 1949. (Photo:AFP)
She did not care about the age difference or about the fact that this dark and daring man had previously had a family and was without a stable job or income. Sadat went ahead and married him anyway and accompanied him through thick and thin until he became president of Egypt in 1970 upon the sudden death of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who had already made him vice-president.
As the spouse of Sadat, she found another strong inspiration in Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Mohamed who had married him when he was a poor young man, had had faith in him, and had supported him through the early years of the call of Islam and who was his one and only wife until she passed away.
Of course, she was also always more than just the spouse of Sadat. Unlike her predecessor, Tahiya Abdel-Nasser, who had deliberately kept a low profile as the president’s wife, Jehan Sadat was not cut out for the shadows. She loved to be centre stage, and she knew very well how to occupy the centre of attention.
She knew that as the spouse of the president of a predominantly Muslim country, especially as he chose to call himself the “believing president” (al-raais al-moumein), there were many red lines that she would need to be careful not to cross. However, she was willing to push such lines over and over again, ever so skillfully and carefully at times and directly at others.
When she chose to take on a greater public profile in the wake of the 1973 October War that granted Sadat much-needed legitimacy independent of any association with the Free Officers, Jehan Sadat knew that she would prompt some unfavourable reactions when she stepped out of the shadow of her husband and engaged in her own independent activities. But she was not intimidated.
In her book A Woman of Egypt, she speaks of the confidence, support, and love she received from her husband. This attitude, she said, had been empowering because she knew he would not be influenced or swayed by critics who suggested that she should restrict herself to only limited appearances in the presence of the president.
However, her public role was perhaps at first encouraged by the positive reactions she received during the visits she made to hospitals to greet and reassure wounded soldiers brought back from the front in the October War.
When she later dared to intervene in the agonies of women suffering under biased personal-status laws, Jehan Sadat got a lot of angry reactions. In interviews with Al-Ahram Weekly on many occasions, mostly during the anniversary of the October War, she recalled the abrasive references made to her in hate mail sent to the newspapers. She was accused of encroaching on the principles of Islamic Law and trying to convert Egypt to the Western norms inculcated in her by her British mother.
In her memoir, Jehan Sadat shares moments of unease over the negative reactions she received as a result of her attempts to reverse the unfairness imposed on women in the name of Islam. However, in her interviews with theWeekly, she always said that she had not had a moment’s hesitation and that her actions were prompted by the heartbreaking images of women clustering in misery at personal-status courts hoping to get a divorce or to file for alimony.
The 1975 film Uridu Hall (I Need a Solution) starring Faten Hamama and Roushdi Abaza helped to shed light on the ordeals that women then had to go through due the cruelty of the law. The attempts of some state-associated men of religion to defend the limited legal amendments supported by Jehan Sadat were also undermined by reactionary currents at large in society that were being encouraged by the growing influence of Sadat’s new and closest ally, Saudi Arabia.
The mid-1970s was a time when thousands of Egyptian families were emigrating to Arab Gulf states in pursuit of economic advancement as a result of the rise of the petro-dollar. Coming back home for the holidays or at other times, many of these families would preach to other families and friends the Saudi version of Islam that they thought to be the most authentic as it had been in what is now Saudi Arabia that Islam had been revealed to the Prophet Mohamed some 13 centuries earlier.
In fact, while Jehan Sadat was working hard to pave the way for legal amendments meant to reduce the unfairness imposed on women, Sadat was calling on one of Egypt’s most-conservative preachers, Mohamed Metwalli Al-Shaarawi, to preach to Egyptian audiences on the main channel of state-owned TV.
It was also at this time that Sadat decided to use an Islamic justification to promote new economic and political policies that were far removed from the socialist laws that his predecessor had tried to establish before his dramatic defeat against Israel in the 1967 War.
Sadat had already given the Islamists, harshly coerced under Nasser, a comfortable space in the public domain in the hope that they would help him to put an end to the strength of the leftists in Egypt.
In her interviews with Al-Ahram Weekly, Jehan Sadat acknowledged that it was a confused moment, but she added that it was only natural for there to have been some experimentation and also for some mistakes to have been made. The country had overcome the humiliating military defeat of 1967 in the 1973 October War, and it was looking for a new direction, she said.
Using the Islamists was certainly more than an act of political experimentation on the part of Sadat. He was also entering into alliances with the traditional monarchs of the Arab Gulf, who provided generous financial support and offered job opportunities for a considerable segment of Egyptian manpower that would otherwise have been forced into unemployment. He was also entering into an alliance with the US, which, like Sadat, was trying to use the power of Islamism to defy the influence of the USSR in the midst of the Cold War.
It was inevitably hard to reconcile Jehan Sadat’s call for the liberation of women from biased laws or her own modern outlook with the reactionary ideas that were being preached at the time, not just in small mosques but also on state TV. These were calling for women to cover their bodies from head to toe and to accept their allegedly God-decided status as second-class human beings.
In interviews in later years, Jehan Sadat said that she knew that whatever the religious views a woman might hold, she would not accept to be coerced into an unfair marital set-up. She argued that one had to draw a distinction between the resistance to change, which might be perfectly normal, and the wish of political foes to lobby public opinion against the president.
While Jehan Sadat thought that it was Sadat’s economic and political policies that caused her to be criticised for her work, some would argue that the non-conformist posture of the first lady — Jehan Sadat was the first president’s wife to take this title, even though there is no reference to it in the Egyptian constitution —was in fact one of the things that made people take against her husband. Jehan Sadat, it has been argued, came across as too daring for a public opinion that was becoming more and more conservative.
However, as Jehan Sadat insisted many times, what was at stake was not the marital-status laws or the elegant suits and jewellery that she was often criticised for wearing. What was at stake, she insisted, was Sadat’s decision to pursue peace with Israel.
Jehan Sadat was always vocal about her views of her husband’s decision to pursue a political settlement to the struggle with Israel after the crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 October War. She always said that there was no doubt in her mind that Egypt could not have survived another war, given the enormous damage inflicted by earlier wars with Israel.
Sadat, she insisted, was assassinated on 6 October 1981 during the military parade to commemorate the victory in the October War because the fanatics who killed him had not wanted his peace plans to work.
In this Oct. 9, 1981, file photo, Mrs. Jehan Sadat, widow of assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, is flanked by U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter, left, and Gerald Ford, as they meet in her Giza Nile-side home(Photo:AP)
In her memoir, Jehan Sadat documented the moments spent at the Maadi Armed Forces Hospital in 1981, praying for Anwar Sadat to come out of the emergency room to which he had been taken alive. For the rest of her life, she always said that her husband’s death had been the price he had paid for pursuing peace.
She never acknowledged any wrongdoing on his part with regard to an Egyptian public opinion that was strongly opposed to the deal or to the fact that he had thrown many of the country’s top political figures, whether from the right or the left, into jail just a few weeks before his assassination. She would always say that “he was just trying to keep things calm before the handover of Sinai, and then he would have released them all.”
It was, however, Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s vice-president, who as president saw the return of Sinai to Egypt. Even so, throughout his 30 years in office, Mubarak always gave the credit to Sadat as “the hero of war and peace”. While Jehan Sadat and her four children, Lobna, Gamal, Noha, and Jehan (Nana), continued to live in Egypt under Mubarak’s rule, in the 25 January Revolution she chose to side with the masses who celebrated the ouster of Mubarak.
In October 2012, Jehan Sadat was “shocked beyond words” to see Abboud Al-Zomor, a former army officer who had served a jail sentence for his role in the assassination of Sadat, invited to an event to commemorate the October War.
In this Oct. 18, 1981, file photo, Jehan Sadat, widow of slain Egyptian President Anwar Sadat votes near her home in Giza at a local police station in a referendum to endorse Hosni Mubarak as her husband's successor. (Photo:AP)
In 2013, she offered her support to the 30 June Revolution that brought President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to power. Like some members of the Nasser family who saw a resemblance between Al-Sisi and Nasser, Jehan Sadat also said that she saw a resemblance between Al-Sisi and Sadat.
Over the past couple of years, Jehan Sadat’s health had been failing, and age and illness had limited her public appearances, even on the anniversary of the October War. She often said that it would hurt her not to be buried next to Anwar, the man she had loved and lived with. But Sadat was buried at the Unknown Soldier Monument in Nasr City, whereas Jehan Sadat was going to be laid to rest in her family tomb.