Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 March 2007
Issue No. 835
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The changing role of the first ladies

Samir Raafat reviews the lives of Egypt's first ladies

Click to view caption
Clockwise from right -- Queens: Nazli, Farida, Nariman, First Ladies: Tahia Abdel Nasser, Jehane al-Sadat, Suzanne Mubarak

EDUCATION AND TRAINING: Not members of the Mohammed Ali clan, Queens Nazli, Farida and Nariman attended elementary and primary schools. Nazli Abdel Rehim Sabry first went to the Mere de Dieu School in Cairo and later to the Dame de Sion in Alexandria. Farida, whose father was a High Court judge in that city, went to the Dame de Sion. French nuns supervised both these boarding schools.

It was different with First Ladies Jehan Al-Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak. The former grew up on the Island of Roda, attending the nearby Church Missionary Society School run by an English headmistress. Suzanne Mubarak's family lived in Heliopolis, and she was enrolled at nearby St Claire's. This was a strict girls-only prep school operated by Mother Mary Cecilia and a band of Franciscan sisters.

After guaranteeing a first class education for their respective children, both first ladies sought and obtained university degrees. At 46, Jehan Al-Sadat received a much-publicised degree in Arabic literature from Cairo University where she eventually taught. At about the same period, Suzanne Mubarak enrolled at the American University in Cairo where she obtained a Bachelors degree in political science (class of 1977) supplementing it with a Masters in 1982.

Unlike previous consorts, Suzanne Mubarak and Jehan Al-Sadat benefited from several years of priming as wives of incumbent vice presidents. In their position as "second ladies" they had enough time to envisage their future roles.

ROLES AND ACTIVITIES: Confined to the palace through most of King Fouad's reign, Queen Nazli was nonetheless allowed to attend opera performances, flower shows and other ladies-only cultural events. She also accompanied the king during part of his four-month tour of Europe in 1927 and was much feted in France in view of her French origins. With the introduction of parliament in 1924, the Queen was among the royal attendees at parliament's opening ceremony seated in a special section of the guest gallery.

During her 10 years as queen of Egypt, Farida Zulfikar went public by accepting the honorary chair of the Red Crescent Society as well as several noted charities and educational organisations where she appeared at fundraisers and commemorations. She was also honorary president of the Feminist Union and the New Woman Alliance, two organizations aimed at improving the status of women in Egypt. Under her patronage, the Egyptian Girl Guide Company played an important role in community affairs. Farida was also present at art exhibitions and presided at receptions for foreign dignitaries.

King Farouk's second consort, Nariman, was similarly active during the short time she was queen.

There are no records on hand evidencing public appearances of the first official First Lady, Aziza M Labib, the invisible wife of General Mohammed Naguib. Her successor, Tahia Abdel Nasser, was seen now and then, but it was always in the shadows of her larger than life husband, President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The otherwise withdrawn Tahia Abdel Nasser never gave a speech and was never seen presiding at a public event.

Deciding to "reign" as first lady, Jehan Al-Sadat quickly broke off with the dutiful stay- at-home persona of her predecessor. She retained a full time press secretary, accepted numerous public engagements, and gave willing interviews to local and foreign media. The arrival of bilingual Jehan Al-Sadat on the local scene coincided with the advent of global television. Jehan Al-Sadat was portrayed by Western media as the full partner of Anwar Al-Sadat in his political, social and economic endeavours. "Anwar Sadat's only rival for popularity among Egyptians these days is a safe and sure ally: his wife Jehan Sadat," wrote Time magazine in 1974 under the title "Egypt's Liberating First Lady".

Aside from championing her husband's political views, Jehan Al-Sadat took a proactive stance regarding family planning and the emancipation of women in Egypt. To her credit, Jehan Al-Sadat spearheaded legislative bills (nicknamed "Jehan's laws" by her detractors) for women's rights, which invariably set off controversies in a country swinging precariously between accelerated Westernisation and Islamic militancy.

First Lady Suzanne Mubarak took up where Jehan Al-Sadat left off. At first she limited herself to charity work, preferring not to attract the same kind of harsh criticism levelled at her predecessor. With time her timid appearances multiplied and soon enough the public accustomed itself to Egypt's first lady becoming a daily staple in printed and visual media. Suzanne Mubarak is the first Egyptian first lady during the era of the republic to directly address the nation via television.

Whereas Jehan Al-Sadat confined her activities within Egypt, Suzanne Mubarak, in addition to local activities, participated in international forums and UN sponsored conferences, particularly those dealing with women and children. Later would come several well-intended initiatives such as "Reading for All", a programme meant to curtail widespread illiteracy while encouraging children to learn and produce, the National Council for Women, and Women for Peace, an international initiative that "seeks to enhance the active participation of women in decision and peacemaking processes."

Suzanne Mubarak has been most influential on issues that concern her deeply, such as the causes of terminal disease and cancer research. Commentators have lauded the care and energy with which she pursues issues like education and the preservation of Egypt's national heritage. There is also a lingering impression that she is the privileged advisor to the president.

Consorts of Egyptian Heads of State

From King Fouad to President Hosni Mubarak

King Fouad (r. 1917-36) + Princess Shuvekar Ibrahim, a cousin (divorced); + Nazli Abdel Rehim Sabry (born 25/6/1894) French grandfather Anthelme Seve (Suleyman Al-Faransawy)

King Farouk (r. 1936-52) + Safinaz "Farida" Zulfikar (born 5/9/1921), (divorced); + Nariman Sadek (born 21/10/1934), (divorced)

President Mohammed Naguib (r. 1953-54) + Aicha Mohammed Labib

President Gamal Abdel Nasser (r. 1954-1970) + Tahia Kazem (born 1920)

President Anwar Al-Sadat (r. 1970 -1981) + Ikbal Madi (divorced); + Jehan Safwat Raouf (born 29/8/1933)

President Hosni Mubarak (r. 1981-) + Suzanne Saleh Sabet (born 28/2/1941)

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