Jehan Sadat once told her husband, former President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, “Over half of our population are women, Anwar. Egypt will not be a democracy until our women are as free as men. As leader of our country, it is your duty to make that happen.” Mrs. Sadat went on to make notable changes in her country, and used her platform to advance the role of women in society. However, she always said that she wanted her legacy to be one of peace, which she and her husband tried to advance in Egypt and the Middle East.

Since Anwar Sadat’s peace agreements with Israel after meeting at Camp David in 1978, he gradually lost popularity around the country for abandoning previous goals of Arab nationalism that depended on unwavering opposition to Israel. Ex-president Sadat is often seen as having betrayed the pan-Arab goals of his popular predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, by making peace with their Israeli neighbors. This agreement especially angered members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic fundamentalist group found throughout the Arab World, which prompted the planned assassination of the president on October 6, 1981. Jehan Sadat defended her husband’s controversial views for the rest of her life. She carried on his legacy of promoting peace despite her husband’s relative unpopularity.

However, Jehan Sadat refused to be defined only by her status in relation to her husband.

Before becoming the First Lady of Egypt, Jehan was an advocate for women’s rights, education, social justice, and poverty relief. Early on in her career, she spoke out for women’s equality, as well as against female genital mutilation. In the 1960s, she developed the Talla Society, a microfinancing organization that helped women in rural areas develop skills to enter the workforce and become financially independent. A few years later, she created the Wafa’Wal Amal (Faith and Hope) Society, which was devoted to providing medical care and rehabilitation to war veterans. She also founded the SOS Children’s Village, which now serves over 300,000 children facing housing insecurity around the world. In 1975 and 1980, she led the Egyptian delegation to UN Conferences on Women in Mexico City and Copenhagen. While her husband was in office, she pushed him to make progressive reforms for women. Most notably, in 1979 she championed the adoption of legislation (later called “Jehan’s Laws”) that gave women better access to divorce, alimony, and custody over their children. A separate law was included that also reserved 30 seats in Egyptian parliament specifically for women.

Jehan Sadat was an impossible figure to ignore in Egyptian politics throughout the 1970s. She stood out even more so because of her unconventional approach to her role as first lady. Her active public role in politics was not only unique to first ladies in the Arab World at this time, but in the entire international system. Cynthia Enloe, a feminist critical theorist in international relations, emphasizes in her book Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (2015), that political and diplomatic leaders’ wives are typically expected to “enhance” their husbands’ efforts to reach their goals, limiting their ability to have their own separate careers and leadership roles. While this remains an issue in politics today, Jehan Sadat was ahead of her time in pursuing her own political leadership agenda. Additionally, she not only strengthened Anwar Sadat’s political agenda, but took initiative in directly influencing his policies herself. After encouraging her husband to expand women’s rights, President Sadat then went on to draft “Jehan’s Laws,” which gave women access to divorce, alimony, and child custody, as well as seats in the Egyptian parliament. This shows that few female figures had as much public influence in politics as Jehan did in the 1970s, especially in this region.

Jehan Sadat’s work is especially important to acknowledge in the context of the Arab world at this time. Much of her work was taking place against a backdrop of growing Islamic fundamentalist groups (most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood), which sought to eliminate women’s roles in public society, who went on to coordinate Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Sadat’s activities, like her husband’s, were heavily criticized by pro-Arab nationalists, fundamentalist groups, and other political figures in the Arab World. While she was acutely aware of this criticism and the risks it posed, she continued to advocate for their shared causes even after Anwar Sadat’s death. Sadat said she knew that their lives were at risk after the Camp David Accords—but her and her husband’s common goal was to commit to peace in Egypt.

Soon after the assassination, Sadat moved to the United States after completing her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Cairo. She continued to speak out about her political views and activism, continuing to turn Enloe’s theory on wives of politicians on its head. She also revealed more about her life as the First Lady and how much she was actually able to play an active role in shaping her husband’s policies, including making peace with Israel. She became a professor of peace studies at the University of Cairo, and later continued to teach at the University of Maryland and the American University in Washington, DC. In 1987, she published her autobiography, A Woman of Egypt, which documents her early life, marriage, and career of activism. Before her death in 2021 at the age of 87, Sadat said she hoped to be remembered for her commitment to peace. “Peace,” she wrote, “this word, this idea – this goal – is the defining theme of my life.” As the two-year anniversary of her death approaches, this legacy is fought for in her home country and surrounding Arab countries. However, she and her legacy is still honored in Egypt. After her death, she received a national medal and military funeral, the first and only woman to receive this kind of honor in Egypt. As the struggle for democracy in the Middle East continues, time will tell to see how Sadat’s legacy lives on.

Written by Anna Riggs; Edited by Jason Kancylarz

Photo credit to Midjourney, Julia Drössler