CAIRO — Jehan Sadat, the widow of former President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, whom she pushed to enact a series of measures aimed at improving women’s rights, died Friday in Cairo. She was 87.
Her death was reported by Egyptian news media, which said that she had been ill for some time but that the cause was unclear.
She was just 14 in 1948 when she met Sadat, an officer in the Egyptian army who had recently been released from prison; he had been detained on and off since 1942 for plotting against the British occupation of Egypt. They married the next year, when she was 15 and he was 30, although her parents were said to be opposed to the match.
Three years later, as one of the Free Officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat participated in the armed coup that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and established the military-supported regime that has ruled Egypt nearly ever since. Nasser served as president until his death in 1970, elevating Sadat to the presidency later that year.
Within Egypt, the soft-spoken Sadat was never regarded as the towering figure that Nasser had been, lacking both his charisma and a forceful agenda, like the quasi-socialist program that Nasser had pushed through as president. But it was Sadat who became the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel.
He took the daring step of initiating peace talks with a country that the Arab states were then unified in treating as their greatest enemy. He flew to Jerusalem to propose a peace settlement to the Israeli Knesset and later signed the Camp David accords, the first peace treaty between an Arab nation and Israel, with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
Jehan Sadat, who had become a far more visible first lady than Nasser’s wife had been, later made a point of saying that she had stood by her husband even though the peace with Israel was highly controversial in Egypt and in the rest of the region. To this day, Egypt and Israel have never enjoyed much more than a chilly lack of hostilities, with Israel and anything Israeli still regarded with suspicion among Egyptians.
“More than 30 years ago, my husband made a difficult but simple choice to make peace his political and personal priority,” Sadat wrote in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal on the 30th anniversary of the Camp David accords. “In response, I made the choice of supporting him 100% even though I knew I would lose him.”
She did lose him. His popularity plunged amid opposition to the treaty, economic troubles and his government’s crackdowns on dissent. He was assassinated by members of a radical Islamist group Oct. 6, 1981, during a military parade commemorating the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973.
The year of the peace accords was also the year that Anwar Sadat issued and passed into law a landmark emergency decree enshrining broader financial rights for women in cases of disputes with their husbands and expanding the grounds on which women could file for divorce. His wife was the driving force behind these improvements to women’s rights, and the decree became known as “Jehan’s Law.”
Many saw the law as a dangerous development rather than progress, criticizing Jehan Sadat for trying to Westernize Egyptian society and hinting that she had used her husband’s power to raise her own profile.
Her husband, she said in a television interview in 2018, “was proud of me.”
“He would say he was proud of what his wife was doing, that she was serving,” she added. “It was not like what people were saying, that I was interfering in politics. Anwar Sadat did not need Jehan Sadat to help him in politics.”
When her husband was assassinated, Sadat was sitting in a nearby box with her grandchildren. She told reporters afterward that she had watched the attack unfold and tried to reach her husband but that a security guard had pushed her to the ground. She was flown by helicopter with her husband to a hospital, where surgeons tried to save his life.
“I expected him to be killed,” she said in a television interview. “He was too outspoken. But my husband, he never expected it.” She added, “My husband knew what was happening. His last word was, ‘No.’” She said he had refused to wear a bulletproof vest, considering it unmanly.
Jehan Safwat Raouf was born in Cairo on Aug. 29, 1933, to an Egyptian father and a British mother. She and her husband had three daughters — Lola, Noha and Jehan — and one son, Gamal.
She is survived by her children and 11 grandchildren.
After her husband became president, Sadat received a bachelor’s degree in Arab literature from Cairo University, followed by a master’s degree in 1980 and a doctorate in comparative literature in 1986.
As first lady, Sadat was involved in promoting women’s education and women’s empowerment, heading numerous charity organizations and participating in international conferences on women’s rights. She taught at Cairo University and was later an associate resident scholar at the University of Maryland.
She wrote two books, “A Woman of Egypt” (1987) and “My Hope for Peace” (2009).
On Friday, the office of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi granted her a posthumous national award. She was given a military funeral, reportedly the first for any Egyptian woman.