At 5 a.m., while Cairo is asleep and the streetlights along the Nile corniche are still burning, Egypt’s first lady, Jihan Sadat, is astir. In the kitchen of the presidential villa in the fashionable Giza section, she brews a tiny cup of potent, medium-sweet Turkish coffee as a prelude to her hectic day. Over the next several hours, she will change roles with bewildering frequency—alternately playing wife, mother, student, athlete, social worker, women’s liberationist and controversial public figure.
This week she will be wearing her first lady’s chapeau when she visits the United States with her husband, President Anwar Sadat. But she will also be functioning as mother, too, for the whole family is coming along: the Sadats’ two married daughters, Lubna, 21, and Noha, 18, and their husbands, son Gamal, 19, youngest daughter Jihan, 15, and her fiancé (Mme. Sadat married at the same age). At least one side trip on the 11-day U.S. tour will be strictly for the children. “They are all dying to see Disneyland,” says Jihan. “I saw it in 1966 and have talked about it ever since.”
An outspoken feminist, Jihan actively works for women’s rights, birth control and suppression of polygamy. “In 1967,” she recalls, “I met a peasant woman crying. She said that her husband had sold her sewing machine and kept the money for himself. I made up my mind to do something to help such women gain some independence.” She makes certain that the president knows her views. “My husband earlier this year told a French delegation that he would see to it that certain laws giving women greater rights would be passed by the end of the year. This was printed in a French newspaper, and I got a clipping. I framed it and set it up in the house where he could see it every day. I won’t let him forget.”
She calls overpopulation “just about the greatest problem we have in Egypt.” (The country’s population is 37 million and growing a million every year.) “I tell my husband he should pass laws penalizing any couple that has more than two children, like refusing free education to any beyond the second child or sterilizing women after they have had two children. Right now I am organizing a campaign promoting population control, treating it as a national emergency.”
Jihan, a devout Muslim, acknowledges that she cannot battle polygamy with much effectiveness. “We can’t forbid it absolutely because it is permitted by the Koran,” she says. “But we could make it hard for the men. We should say, ‘Very well, marry a second wife, but you must give half your salary to the first wife.’ Or, ‘You must get the approval of your first wife.’ Or, we should follow the Koran exactly. It allows polygamy, but only if a husband treats all his wives exactly alike. That is enough to make it impossible.”
Lest it appear that she henpecks the president, the comely Jihan adds with a smile. “It’s not that I am against men. I like men. I certainly like my husband, and I like my son. I don’t object to a man being the head of the family. But I do think women should have their rights recognized and be given a chance to achieve something.”
Jihan was a 12-year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of an upper middle-class Egyptian and a British mother, when she first heard about Capt. Anwar Sadat, then a young revolutionary in jail for his alleged involvement in the assassination of Amin Osman Pasha, a pro-British official. “I met my husband for the first time in 1948, on my 15th birthday,” Jihan recalls. “It was the day he came out of prison. His first wife had divorced him a year before he was released from prison. I heard my cousins speak of how courageous he was, how he had resisted the British who were occupying Egypt, and I loved him for it, even though my mother was British.”
Sadat was 16 years her senior, but Jihan had no doubts. “At the time he had no money and no job, but someone told my family that he had land and money,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t let him correct that story, so that my parents would consent to the marriage.” Today Jihan presides over no fewer than eight residences, from Aswan to the Mediterranean Sea.
At the presidential villa, a three-story house filled with Louis XIV and XV furniture, Gobelin tapestries, Persian carpets and Chinese porcelain, Jihan spends an hour after her coffee going through her voluminous correspondence or studying Arabic literature. Last year, 20 years after graduating from high school, she decided to enroll in college and last June she sequestered herself for two weeks before final exams at Cairo University. “I couldn’t even go with my husband to Salzburg [to see Gerald Ford] or to the opening of the Suez Canal,” she says. It was worthwhile—she finished second in her class.
Mme. Sadat is interested in physical fitness and likes to dive, swim and go boating. She puts in at least 15 minutes of vigorous calisthenics each day, and by 8 a.m. she is on the tennis court for a half hour of singles. At 9:30 Jihan reverts to the role of wife and joins the president for breakfast. By 11 a.m. she has become a public person. This means a long succession of interviews with citizens involved in hospital work and rehabilitation centers, and with students, scholars and feminists. Or she may leave the house to visit Wafaa Wa Amal—”Faith and Hope”—a vast rehabilitation center for the disabled, which she sponsors.
At 2:30 p.m. she is the dutiful wife again, lunching with the president. Unlike her husband, she scorns the almost universal Egyptian custom of a postprandial siesta. Instead, she fills her afternoons with more calls on her charities, meetings with the wives of diplomats, or perhaps a discussion of strategy on promoting birth control. The evening signals a return to home and motherhood—a 7:30 dinner with all the family gathered. If there are no appointments, she will watch a film with her children. The end of the day is devoted to college studies or reading for pleasure. She currently is reading The Stream of Days, the autobiography of the late Dr. Taha Hussein, a blind Egyptian writer.
The indefatigable Jihan Sadat is, at 41, an uncommonly beautiful woman, stylishly dressed (mostly by Mme. Lozi, a moderately priced Cairo dressmaker), and completely modern. In many ways she resembles the U.S. First Lady, Betty Ford, whom Jihan is eager to meet. Asked what she thought of Betty Ford’s recent candid remarks on sex and marijuana, Jihan clapped her hands together. “How I admire that woman,” she said. “Why should everybody else speak about these things—and a president’s wife have to remain silent?”