By Mira Avrech
February 25, 1980 12:00 PM

The two women slipped unobtrusively into the small mosque in a poor quarter of Cairo and knelt at the back. They were dressed discreetly in black, with shawls concealing their faces. When the evening prayers were over, one woman stepped forward, removed the threadbare keswa cover over the tomb of the founder of the mosque and replaced it with a new one. She put a votive candle where the old one had guttered out and then left with her companion. In the next three hours the women made similar visits to four other mosques in the city slums. At none of them was Jihan Sadat, wife of Egypt’s president, recognized. “It was the end of a full day when she suddenly decided to make the tour,” explains her companion and social secretary, Kadria Sadek. “She avoids publicity on such occasions because she is deeply religious. She knew the mosques were poor and needed new covers and candles.”

Despite her piety and the fact that she lives in a predominantly Muslim nation where women have little power, Jihan holds intensely modern views. Her advocacy of women’s rights and birth control has caused striking social change in Egypt. In fact, she has been called “the divine disturber of the peace.” “I cannot bear to waste my time on tea and cocktail parties,” Jihan says. “I hate small talk.”

Like Rosalynn Carter, she strives for self-improvement. In 1974 she enrolled in the University of Cairo and now, at 46, holds a B.A. and M.A. in Arabic literature (her thesis was on the influence of Shelley on modern Arabic literature). She teaches that subject at the university two days a week.

Like Mrs. Carter, Jihan also is suspected of influencing her husband’s thinking in foreign affairs. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War Jihan received a letter from an Israeli mother, Ruth Liss, whose frogman son had been killed placing explosives in an Egyptian harbor. The woman appealed to Mrs. Sadat “as a woman and a mother” to help find her son’s body. “Believe me, I was crying,” Jihan recalls. “The letter was so human. I too have a son.” Impulsively, she asked the minister of defense to search for the body (it was never recovered)—and wrote back to Liss without consulting her husband. “All my friends advised me not to do it,” she recalls. “They said I could not write to the enemy and that I would harm my husband politically.” Later, after the letter was mailed via France, she told Sadat. He reprimanded her and subsequently, on learning she had answered another letter from an Israeli student, Anwar grumped, “You are making trouble for me.”

Undeterred, Jihan continued her personal overtures to Israelis. Discovering that Egypt’s once prosperous Jewish community had shrunk to an impoverished group of 150, she sought to help them. This time she received Anwar’s consent before moving ahead with her plan—to invite the group’s aging rabbi to the presidential palace for a talk. The meeting lifted the morale of the Jewish community enormously.

Such acts surely have had an effect on her husband, who next week moves closer to a lasting peace with Israel with the exchange of ambassadors. Yet Jihan, perhaps shrewdly, refuses to take any public credit. “I only deal with women’s rights,” she insists, “with mothers and children and with the quality of life. As for political matters, I must try to give my husband the peace and the silence he needs to think and work. He is a lone wolf, really. Sometimes he asks my opinion, but that does not mean he takes my advice. He does not need advice. He is a leader.”

In any case, Sadat’s announcement of his upcoming historic mission to Jerusalem in 1977 took Jihan completely by surprise. Hearing it from her youngest daughter, she rushed to her husband and exclaimed: “This is the best thing you have said in your life.” Later, when advisers warned that Sadat might lose his popularity, his wife shot back: “So what? So he will retire. The main thing is that he does what he thinks right.”

Bidding her husband farewell on that trip, Jihan said nothing about his safety (he has survived several plots on his life and sleeps with a pistol by his bed). Instead, she admonished him to mind his manners, especially with Golda Meir, whom he had called “the old lady.” “Sometimes his voice is very loud,” Jihan notes. “And he never really shows himself as the kind, generous man he is. He still has the manner of those from rural areas who insist, ‘Yes, I know what to say.’ But I wanted to make sure.” As it was, he charmed Meir, and the former prime minister sent Sadat home with earrings for his newborn granddaughter.

During the Camp David peace talks, Jihan was in Paris. Each day she would call Sadat only to be told: “There is nothing new.” Finally he phoned exuberantly. “Jihan, I wanted you to be the first to know. We finished. In three hours we are going to Washington to sign the agreement.”

The accord brought Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. Dividing the honor “was not fair,” Jihan contends, since her husband was the initiator of—and prime mover toward—a settlement. But with a sly grin she notes, “Perhaps it was fair after all. Perhaps they did it in order to encourage Begin to do more for peace.”

With the political situation stabilized, the stately, auburn-haired First Lady has more time for other causes. She opened 31 children’s clubs, with another 40 to begin operation this year. “I don’t want to give the children only clothes,” she explains. “They need food for the soul—ideas and values instilled in them.” Jihan once rebuked a mother who proclaimed, “We must teach our children to hate the Israelis so that when they grow up they will fight them courageously.” With eyes flashing, Sadat snapped, “First they will hate the Israelis, and then their friends, and finally their brothers, sisters and parents.”

In the town of Talla in the Nile delta, Jihan has set up a cooperative for impoverished women. Even more impressive is Faith and Hope City, an immense rehabilitation district outside Cairo which has offices, workshops and restaurants for disabled veterans and the physically handicapped. “Mrs. Sadat really cares,” says Betty Atherton, whose husband, Roy, is the U.S. ambassador to Egypt. “She worries about people.”

Especially about women. Sadat needled her husband into overcoming Islamic tradition and tightening Egypt’s divorce laws. (Until last September a man could shed his wife simply by proclaiming, “I divorce you.”) And when Jihan learned that the Sudanese send women from every constituency to their legislature, she prodded Anwar on that point. “Our laws need to be changed,” he said. “Be patient. I will do it.” Now 34 women sit in Egypt’s People’s Assembly. But Sadat has to be reconvinced on occasion, notes his wife. “Sometimes he is bothered and tired and he will get angry and growl: ‘Jihan, I am fed up with your rights of women.’ ”

They admit to having had “terrible quarrels” on the subject of family planning. Jihan has proposed voluntary sterilization, although many Muslims continue to resist birth control. She reports, “At first my husband used to say, ‘Heavens, Jihan, you just talk for the sake of talking. I have to find houses for the people of Egypt and I have to feed them.’ And I used to answer: ‘But, Anwar, family planning is your main problem. It is because you have so many people that you cannot feed them.’ ” Her arguments have been persuasive. “In his last three speeches in the assembly, the president has mentioned family planning,” Jihan boasts.

Such household debates have been going on for 30 years. The couple began courting when Jihan Raouf was just 15. Sadat was 29 and a romantic figure who had just spent two and a half years in jail for his opposition to English imperialism. “I was impressed by the accounts of his courage and dedication to his cause,” she recalls. But Sadat was hardly the ideal suitor—a married man with three children. Even worse, he was poor and, having been stripped of his army commission, jobless. Jihan’s father, a well-to-do government official, did not approve. Her English mother, a former schoolteacher who had met her husband while he was studying medicine in Sheffield, England, was horrified by Sadat’s dark skin. But the lovers persisted and married before Jihan’s 16th birthday.

Not long after, Sadat was reinstated as a captain in the Egyptian army. In 1952 he returned to Cairo unexpectedly from his post in the Sinai. Ostensibly, the visit was home leave with Jihan. But in fact Sadat had been summoned by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was plotting to overthrow King Farouk. The coup was successful. His Majesty departed with a 21-gun salvo and Nasser and Sadat saluting as the royal yacht sailed away. After Nasser’s death in 1970, Sadat became president. At his side during his first formal reception for foreign diplomats was Jihan, the first time an Egyptian head of state had thrust his wife into the foreground.

Within two years she had become a figure of contention in the Muslim world. On seeing pictures of Jihan, dressed in a pantsuit, visiting troops on the Suez Canal, Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi dispatched two envoys in a special plane to Cairo. The men arrived past midnight and demanded an immediate audience with Sadat. Believing it was a matter of state, the president listened to their complaints in his dressing gown and angrily dismissed them. Gaddafi continued to be nettled by Jihan’s refusal to wear a veil and once even insinuated she was trying to seduce him by wearing a tight skirt and blouse. Sadat was outraged. “I could forgive this madman all his sins,” he said, “but not his attack on my wife.” Gaddafi and Sadat remain personal—and political—antagonists.

The Sadats have three daughters and one son, Gamal (named after Nasser), ages 19 to 25, all of whom are married. The clan (including three grandchildren) gathers regularly on Fridays—the Muslim Sabbath—for lunch or dinner, often at the Barrages, Anwar’s favorite among 10 presidential residences. Jihan prefers the Louis XV ambience of their Giza home on the Nile in Cairo, because all the children live in the neighborhood. “We are like any normal family,” says Jihan. “We all voice our opinions—on Iran, the Shah, whatever. And my husband will answer and react.” In the evenings, the Sadats often watch movies in their private screening room. The president prefers Westerns. Jihan handles most family matters. “My father has enough problems,” says Nana, the youngest. “We wouldn’t tire him with our own.”

To meet all the demands on her time, Jihan rises at 5 a.m. After the first of five daily prayer sessions, she prepares for her classes until 8. Then comes an hour of squash or tennis. At 9 she dresses (a bottle of Israeli Bathsheba perfume sits on her dresser) and begins her rounds. Anwar does not rise until 10.

Jihan tries to schedule lunch with her daughters and then a 2 p.m. stroll in the garden of the Barrages palace with her husband. “It’s a chance to talk to him,” she says, “but sometimes I feel he wants to think and I leave him alone.” When she has time, she writes poetry (which has been published under a pseudonym). In Cairo, her Brussels griffon dogs, Pepper and Beauty, provide company, and on her walks the First Lady carries a bottle of Seven-Up and a pack of cigarettes, even though she doesn’t smoke. The reason: Her caged chimpanzees, Honey and Sonny, who live in the garden, enjoy a smoke, chased by a soft drink.

But such indulgences are increasingly infrequent. “I have too much to do,” says Jihan Sadat. “My husband and myself, we have an obligation—to our people and to the world.”