Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
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Jehan El-Sadat
 
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Jehan El-Sadat:

Destinies forged anew

In softly echoing reception rooms, the past is history --
but its perfume lingers on

Profile by Fayza Hassan


Jehan's wedding
..the wedding;
October veterans
with 6 October veterans;
Jimmy Carter
with former President Jimmy Carter;

Rafiki preceded his mistress by half a step as she walked into the elegantly appointed reception rooms of the once heavily guarded villa on the Nile, President Anwar El-Sadat's residence. The grey Persian sniffed the air delicately -- friends or foes? -- and, reassured, made the rounds to allow our culture editor Mursi Saad El-Din and myself to admire him in all his furry splendour.

A beauty in his own right, Rafiki did not attract the attention he deserved from me, however, as I watched Jehan El-Sadat approach, a welcoming smile brightening her luminous eyes, so reminiscent of those of her feline companion. In the sun filtering through the bay windows, they shone almost gold and it was only later that I could determine their colour more accurately: a light green with dancing specks of orange. A translucent complexion given to blushing and lightly dusted with freckles, as well as light blond hair, betrayed an Anglo-Saxon connection. She wore unpretentious, well-cut grey silk pants, with a matching short top and a long silk blouse in a snakeskin print. The mules on her feet featured the same design, a hint that Mrs El-Sadat is up on the latest fashions.

During President Anwar El-Sadat's rule, she was often pictured as a formidable woman, the power behind the scenes, the unofficial but real decision-maker. She became a controversial personality early on in the regime, in 1971, when her husband conferred on her the title of First Lady of Egypt, which "was regarded," according to Tim Sullivan (Women in Egyptian Public Life, AUC Press, 1987) "as an American affectation, an import which had no roots in the Egyptian soil."

Although she was neither involved in nor consulted on the most important political decisions of the presidency, she was considered Sadat's key informant about what was going on in the country because of her greater accessibility to ordinary people. She was often blamed for her audacity and recklessness, for the regrettable sway she held over the president and, generally, for what her critics considered abuses of power. The woman who sits with us, however, is the epitome of femininity and appears rather subdued in a graceful sort of way. Could a core of steel be lurking behind the silky softness?

During her husband's presidency, she was an outspoken advocate of women's right to an education, to working outside the home and to having political opinions and a role of their own. She represented Egypt at the 1975 International Women's Year Conference in Mexico City, joined and often headed women's associations such as Al-Wafa wal-Amal, formed charitable organisations to teach women marketable skills and lobbied actively for a reform of the Personal Status Laws. She was the driving force behind the passing of the 1979 decree subsequently dubbed "Jehan's Law," which required the husband to register his divorce and to inform his wife of it, gave the wife a claim to larger alimony and child support, lengthened the period children spent in maternal custody and gave women the right to retain the conjugal home if they could prove they had nowhere else to go. Jehan El-Sadat also pushed for the appointment of Aisha Ratib as Egypt's first woman ambassador and lobbied for a quota of seats to be reserved for women members of parliament. For all these reasons, she attracted the media's malicious attention as well as the vivid criticism of conservative segments of Egyptian society, which favoured seclusion and silence for women, albeit in a different disguise.

Today, she is reluctant to discuss her achievements or dwell on memories of the aura of glamour that enveloped her every move at one time. It is as if she has forgotten that she was once able to change destinies with just a few words. Is she a consummate diplomat who mastered the art of hiding her true personality long ago, or was all the talk about her overbearing attitude just spiteful publicity? Even the recent changes in the Personal Status Law do not draw a heated comment on her part. "They repealed it [referring to the 1985 abrogation of 'Jehan's Law']," she says with a shrug, "but now they are giving women khul', which is a good thing, of course. What I can't understand, however, is how they can allow a husband and wife to remain under the same roof once they have been divorced. It could turn out to be quite uncomfortable," she adds, with a slightly bewildered smile.

Mursi tries to steer the conversation towards her numerous visits to the United States as Egypt's First Lady, but she seems rather uninterested by gossip about heads of states and their wives. She is prompt to recognise Clinton's unusual charisma, but adds softly: "Then he went and did that stupid thing, which lost him much of his popularity."

She looks so shy, almost unassuming, and her words reflect the tolerance and detachment of someone who has been through a momentous tragedy and barely survived. At one time, she was described as arrogant, but I find it impossible to imagine that she was ever as misguided by delusions of grandeur as the media claimed. Rather, listening to the sad and melodious voice, I am inclined to think that her heart went out to the more vulnerable segments of society -- women and children -- and that, being in a position to help, she responded spontaneously, albeit naively at times, following her instinct and taking the victims' side. "Once, when Anwar El-Sadat was president, a woman came to see me," she recounts. "She had been married to a doctor, who fell for his nurse and decided to divorce her and throw her out of his house. He was paying her no alimony and she was practically destitute. I called the doctor and convinced him that he had to make his monthly payments to his wife. To ensure that he did not renege on his promise, I used to send my secretary around to collect the sum and give it to her." Had the woman been able to work, she would not have had to beg for the few pounds the doctor begrudged her, El-Sadat concludes.

Her ideas about women's rights have not changed, she says; she has devoted her life to advocacy, and she still believes Egyptian women must acquire an education and take their rightful place in society.

Jehan El-Sadat believes that the solution to most of our problems lies in providing people with an education. "Not necessarily a university education, as we do now; this is silly. Many people are not gifted in advanced studies, nor can they count on a ready position once they have painstakingly acquired the knowledge that qualifies them for it. We have thousands of doctors without clinics and lawyers who cannot find a law firm willing to hire them. They form the bulk of the unemployed in the cities, embittered young men and women who are wasted because society cannot offer them respectable alternatives." She strongly supports vocational training upgraded to the level of a university degree. In Washington, where she spends part of the year, her next-door neighbour has a son and a daughter. While the girl opted for college, the son has quit school and is working in computers. He makes good money and no one has ever frowned upon his choice. "The American education system is practical, unencumbered with prejudices and it works. Why don't we look in this direction?" she wonders.

She herself fought hard to acquire her degrees. Born and raised on Roda Island, educated in a missionary school, Jehan Safwat Raouf interrupted her studies and married Anwar El-Sadat on 29 May 1949, when she was not yet 16. Of the famous love story that led to her early marriage, she says nothing, and I abstain from asking direct questions. The circumstances in which she met her husband have been sufficiently publicised in a number of biographical articles.

From Sullivan's book, written in the mid-'80s, when Jehan had been widowed for over four years, comes one of the most recent accounts of her first meeting with Sadat: Interested in politics from an early age, she had followed the trial of the young army officer arrested and charged with the murder of Amin Osman, former minister of finance. Jehan read the newspapers attentively, searching for accounts of the assassination, the arrest and the trial; by the time the charges were dropped and Anwar El-Sadat was released, he had become her revolutionary hero. She hoped to meet him, and was introduced to him at the home of one of her cousins. It was love at first sight.
granddaughter
with granddaughter;

baby
as a child

Early on, she conformed to the traditional pattern, staying home and having children (three girls and a boy). She had always wanted to complete her education, however, and to prepare herself for a professional career. In 1972, she took the British secondary school exam (GCE or General Certificate of Education) and entered Cairo University the following year. "Anwar El-Sadat had encouraged me to take up a subject that was easy, like English literature, so that my studies would not interfere too much with my other duties as a wife and mother. I decided that I was more interested in Arabic literature." She received her BA in 1978 and was admitted to the graduate programme. In 1980, she completed her master's thesis on the impact of the poet Shelley on Arabic literature in Egypt. She became a member of the junior staff at the university and began to prepare her doctorate.

Jehan El-Sadat seems oblivious of the fact that, during the early part of her studies at least, she was a role model for many women, and that the publicity associated with her actions had engendered criticism in quarters with interests vested in the status quo. According to Sullivan, "[a] good example of this occurred in 1980, with the nationally televised defence of her master's thesis. The intention was to demonstrate that she earned the degree and was not given it because she was the First Lady. Also, it was to show that women could receive an advanced degree. Those points were lost in the criticism which followed the event, regarded by most Egyptian academics as another excess of the Sadat regime, an ostentatious pursuit of publicity for its own sake."

El-Sadat does not mention this episode, but says only that she was interested in acquiring a degree in comparative literature. The conversation shifts to study in the US and for a while I listen to her exchanging memories with Saad El-Din of the days when they both taught a course at the University of South Carolina. "I am no longer keen on teaching," she tells him. "I have only retained my ties with the University of Maryland. I think it is enough," she adds in my direction. "I only accept to go on lecture tours now."

She is proud to have gone on regardless of the tragedy in her life and obtained her PhD. She is also proud to have dared to go to university with her own children. "I was in my forties and sat on the bench with students my children's age. I felt that with my experience, I was better equipped to succeed and always made every effort to top the class. I was helped by a photographic memory, which gave me a head start. Unfortunately, after the assassination I lost it completely... I had trouble remembering most events, to the point that after a while, I began to worry seriously. I consulted [famous cardiologist] Mohamed Attiya, who explained that this happens after a shock. He refused to put me on medication and said that in time I would recover at least part of this gift, although probably not fully. He was right, but I continue to exercise my memory and I am definitely getting better."

She has also made it a point to remain busy, taking up painting, which she has loved since childhood. She is currently preparing an exhibition of her works. When she tires of the canvas, she reads, travels, lectures and generally keeps up with current events. In Washington, the base from which she prepares her conferences and lecture tours and where she now spends the autumn and spring months -- they are so beautiful there, and she likes the idea of well-defined seasons -- she does a lot of gardening. Not here, I ask, looking at the manicured lawn, the royal palms and the lush shrubbery that separate the house from the corniche and the Nile. She laughs. "I think the gardener would find it strange if I joined him with my garden gloves and scissors..." But in Cairo she has her five cats, all Persians, all bought by her daughter who is forbidden by her husband to keep more than two at a time. "She falls in love with them, tries to convince her husband to take them and, when he refuses (as expected), she brings them to me. Sometimes, when one is particularly irresistible, she keeps him and moves another one of her quota of two here."

The cats don't follow El-Sadat on her travels, because she thinks that they would suffer terribly on the plane. She does not particularly enjoy flying herself. She misses them, though, and they return the compliment. "One of my cats sulks for three weeks after every one of my trips. She pretends not to see me and puts her head to the wall whenever I try to talk to her. She wants to tell me that she is not going to let me off that easily and forgive me for having abandoned her. We eventually make up, though."

El-Sadat is brought back to Egypt constantly by a far more exciting attachment: her love for her grandchildren, and in particular one-year-old Anwar, who lives with his parents and sisters on the third floor of the villa. "He is so cuddly and full of fun," she says, and then repeats his name slowly: "Anwar El-Sadat..." She is suddenly lost in a private world. It is time to take our leave. She accompanies us graciously through the salons where time seems suspended, where family photos occupy pride of place and where each piece of furniture still carries a faint perfume of the past. Maybe, if we stopped long enough, the aroma of tobacco from the famous pipe would slowly drift our way.

photo: Mohamed Wasim

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