Jihan Sadat: a world symbol comes out of seclusion

She had been one of the world's most visible women. A beauty, a poet, and a crusader, she sparked change and controversy in her own country for more than two decades. Considered a thorn in patriarchal Egypt's side, she nonetheless became a symbol of the modern Arab woman to the rest of the world.

She is Jihan Sadat, widow of President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981.

The daughter of an Egyptian physician and an English schoolteacher, Mrs. Sadat was the first Egyptian first lady to take a public role. In addition to raising four children and earning her doctorate in Arabic literature, she helped improve the rights of women under Egyptian law, including guaranteed seats in parliament. She campaigned passionately for family planning and literacy. She even argued publicly with her husband on the American TV show ''60 Minutes.''

Yet, after her husband's death, Mrs. Sadat slipped rapidly from view, spending a year in seclusion. Now she is back in the public eye. Her memoirs are scheduled to be published later this year. She has begun to travel and to teach at the University of Cairo.

And just as significantly, she has begun to answer in public some of the criticisms of her husband's rule, including accusations of corruption.

On her second visit to the United States since President Sadat's assassination - the first visit was to accept the American Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously to him last fall - Mrs. Sadat journeyed deep into New England to be recognized for her efforts.

Here, amid spring winds and blossoming crab-apple trees, she received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Vermont. Stepping to the podium, her gown billowing about her ankles and her mortarboard clipped firmly to her hair with bobby pins, she spoke to the graduates - not of her husband's achievements, but of her own.

''Life, to have some meaning,'' she said, ''must be based on some kind of faith and some measure of willpower.''

When she finished, there were two standing ovations.

And then she agreed to take reporters' questions. Politely, patiently, and in richly Arabic-accented tones, she defended her husband's legacy and described with pride her work on behalf of women in the Muslim world.

Some excerpts:

President Nasser's wife never appeared in public; President Mubarak's wife remains in the home. Was it your decision or your husband's that you took such a public role?

After my husband became President, I thought: ''Am I going to choose to stay at home and just fulfill my official obligations as the wife of a president? Or am I going to be involved in social activities and to help as much as possible?'' The second choice was the more difficult, but I chose it because I feel that the role of the wife of the president must be a link between her husband and the people, that she must serve the people as much as possible.

How much influence did you have on your husband's decisions? Did he ask your advice on political affairs?

Never, believe me. Never. When he was a great politician, he didn't need me at all. But my role was just to keep the warmth of the house, not to burden him with our problems or the children's or our friends', but just keep to the warmth of the house. That was the only influence, if you could call it influence.

What is your role now?

Now I am teaching twice a week. And besides teaching I remain involved in three of my (social) projects. I couldn't stay involved in all my welfare projects - there were many of them and, of course, there is a new first lady to continue them - so I only kept three. One that I started for the women (is) in the rural areas, where they learn a handicraft and how to depend on themselves. The other project is a center for the disabled. And the third is the villages for orphan children. And, of course, I am busy with my own children, my family.

Do you still see yourself being in the public eye?

Yes, because I am working. It is not necessary that my photos be in the newspapers. I am still working. What I started I am continuing. I didn't work because I was the wife of a president. No, I believe in women's rights, in women working, and I am still working after my husband has passed away.

What is the status of women in Egypt today? Is there more that you wish you could do? Or is it a time to yield to conservative, fundamentalist factions?

I am very proud that women took rights during my husband's time. For instance , the passage of the civil rights law for which I was cruelly attacked, but which I am still proud of. It gave the divorced women custody rights to keep their children until a certain age. Also the alimony rights. Now the divorced woman can receive her alimony immediately instead of waiting months and months such as before this law.

Of course, it was very horrible for a woman to suffer without any money, especially if she didn't have any job. And the rights to the flat (apartment). Now it is kept for the divorced woman, not only because she is a woman, but also for the children. How can she raise her children without a flat? These obstacles we established not to prevent men from divorcing and remarrying. But at least they won't find it as easy as before. These laws, I believe, give security to so many families. And statistics show divorce is down by 25 percent since this passed.

The other law that we also have is that 35 women are now members of parliament. In every (province) a seat is kept for women. Of course, a woman has the right to run against a man. But there is a seat reserved just for women candidates. Also something of which I am very proud is that 20 percent of local town councils are now made up of women.

Are those percentages making an impact on legislation?

It makes such a big change. Because if you see a woman in the rural areas sitting beside men on these councils - solving the problems, building the society, cheering each other on - this is something that means a lot. I am very proud because I remember when I was the only woman on a council.

Is Islam an impediment to women's progress? It has been said that there is little secular tradition in Egypt, little that is untouched by Muslim law and practices.

No. Believe me, I am a Muslim woman and I follow my religion. I respect my religion, and there is nothing (in Muslim law) against women. On the contrary, our religion gave women things that many countries only recently established by law. And if very narrow-minded religious people want to say that this or that is against Muslim law, it doesn't mean that Islam itself is against women working or women sharing in building the society.

Do you see the Muslim fundamentalist movement growing in Egypt? One sees some evidence of it in the dress of young women.

Well, these fanatics, if I could call them that, they are in Egypt, yes. They are in other Arab countries also. It is going on. But I wouldn't say that they are stronger than before.

Do you see them as a danger to the state?

I don't think to that extent. Of course, they are dangerous in any state. But I think our government is aware of this and is doing its best to have dialogues with them, arresting the most dangerous of them. But there are always dialogues on TV, in the newspapers, talking with them and convincing them, because they are brainwashed, really.

Your role in promoting women's rights, and social rights generally, is well known. But what of the resentments and charges that are often whispered against you? We have heard that you've begun to answer some of these charges in the Arabic press.

Of course, anyone who works or does something is criticized. If he or she is not working, they are not criticized. But I am very proud of what I've done, and I never regret anything I've done. I've done it for women. If I am criticized, I usually ignore it. But sometimes when they lie too much, I will answer indirectly through an interview - not mentioning the names or the newspaper itself, but answering so that people will know the truth.

Did you suffer any embarrassment during the trial of President Sadat's brother for corruption? Was it a political trial?

Sure, I was suffering, because I was in a corner. He is my husband's brother; it's a fact. Was it a fair trial? Was he guilty? I can't say, because I can't judge it. But I was a little bit sensitive or a little bit sad because of the publicity. It was too exaggerated. In every government there are people who are corrupt, but to concentrate like that was something that hurts me. That doesn't mean that he is innocent. I'm not saying that. I do say it was too focused on him in a way that hurt us.

Since President Sadat's death, some have called his policy of peace with Israel a failure because of the creeping annexation of the West Bank and the invasion of Lebanon. Do you consider it a failure? Would matters have turned out any differently if he were still on the scene?

First of all, it is not a failure because what is going on in Lebanon is following what he started. There is an agreement now between Israel and Lebanon and, hopefully, it will continue as he and everyone wished for the countries' benefit. I believe that sooner or later others will follow, because there is no other alternative except a peace agreement.

How do you think history will look at Anwar Sadat?

Believe me, I am not saying this because he was my husband, . . . but he has left his stamp on history. His was not an easy task, and he paid his life for it. But he knew it when he started his peace initiative and he was threatened several times. Yet, in spite of this, he continued. He was a courageous soul because he had a vision, and history will never forget it.

Did you have any sense of the danger he was in?

Sure, I was aware of it. I was always feeling that something might happen to him after his visit (to Israel). But it is much better and more dignified . . . that he gave his life for peace than for him to have lacked this courage and stayed at home - though it's such a big loss for me and for many of the people who loved him. He was not like anyone else. He made such a miracle, in my opinion.

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