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Executive Talk: Jehan Sadat

Hazel Heyer, Special to eTN  Jul 28, 2008

Of the legacy of her slain husband, she remains proud. “I feel proud, extremely proud,” said Jehan Sadat, former First Lady of the Republic of Egypt. Unfazed, never intimidated by negative publicity, she said without buckling, “They accused my husband of being a traitor, but none made peace slowly but surely with Israel like Sadat did.”

Bullets could have riddled her bulletproof vest-free body on that sad day in October 1981, when Sadat was assassinated at a military parade commemorating Egypt’s October 1973 war victory. None whatsoever pierced Jehan’s soul. “Together with my family and millions of people, I am proud of what my husband had done. Even people, countries and Arab leaders who were previously against him now gain wisdom from his accomplishments 27 years later,” she intimated alluding to his peace-keeping efforts.

Married to late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Jehan has become a dedicated activist for women and the disadvantaged. She shuttles between Egypt and the US promoting the ideals, the code Free Officer Sadat lived for, now burning deep within Jehan’s core. During Anwar’s time, she saw an opportunity in taking an active role in defending women’s rights. “My husband was a tireless advocate of women’s rights, power and her proper place in society. If women were only educated, if women could only help men build that ideal society, the world would be perfect. If half of society does nothing, time will stand still for humankind.

Examine a progressive society with high-quality living standards, you only need look at roles women play to explain success in the community. Such is my credo - the reason I work for the uplift of women,” she said.

Recipient of the most-coveted Living Legacy Award of the Women’s International Centre, Mrs. Sadat set an example of hope through education despite any age. As testimony, she herself went back to school at 40. “I graduated from the university and continued my MA. After 6 years, I had my PHD. Education opens several doors for one to work virtually everywhere. If I would not have had proper education, I could not have taught in Egypt and the States.” Today, she holds lecture tours all over the world from Europe, to Asia and Russia backed by previous teaching posts at the University of Cairo where she was once a professor while serving as First Lady.

On a talk widely-spoken, “I believe women can play a better role in propagating peace. Women are the mothers reconciling kids when they fight over trivial matters or wives standing by their husbands’ side in times of tribulation. I believe in the unique role of a woman who makes great leaders out of men and boys. She imparts knowledge and best principles in her young from childhood to adulthood. Thus women should not only consider their role in society as natural or an automatic prerogative, but give attention to qualification in which education is key. I dream to see women in every country highly educated.”

To seek literacy is what Professor Sadat aspires for all. “It is never too late! It’s a long, long journey worth the wait,” said the peacemaker in her own right.

If it was worth the while, it was also worth the effort to show other first ladies a profile of herself as presidential wife. The first Africa-Arab Women’s League was one of the several organizations she put up as first lady. Gathering the African and Arab first ladies, and 2 or 3 active women in society, she held big conferences with which they’d shared and learned from each other’s experiences. “To help each other, build unity between Egypt, Africa and other Arab countries was my goal, recognizing that poor women throughout the region have similar issues on literacy, education, finances and future of children.” Mrs. Sadat took the Ladies to antiquities in Egypt, to cruises on the Nile and to many ancient temples. Sadly, there hadn’t been any follow-up since she left the Palace. After the death of President Sadat, her so-called Made in Egypt projects and other initiatives she spearheaded before her husband died were taken over by her successor Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak.

Jehan has moved on and later set sights on education. “I was teaching at the Cairo University in my husband’s time. Later I moved to Washington, DC to teach.” Children were on Sadat’s main agenda, having three of her own and 11 grandchildren. SOS Children’s Villages was started during Sadat’s time after a trip to Austria. The villages were an orphanage on a grander scale. “Fascinated after having spent a day with the kids there, and hoping I can do the same in Egypt, I was finally convinced I should forge ahead.”

Starting a charity for women, children or the youth in Egypt requires one to pay a relatively small amount for the site, about a dollar an acre. Sadat had the land. Dr. Kamaina who launched the villages in Austria summoned her to do similar projects in Egypt, if she could allocate tracts of land to SOS. Kamaina delegated the project to her; since then the village was in her care. “My husband inaugurated the first village in Cairo. Later, I built another in Tanta between Cairo and Alexandria and a third site in Alexandria. I can’t tell you how much the children, who came miserable in the beginning, have changed and grown healthy and happy,” she added.

Unlike any other orphanage, the village had a ‘mother’ figure responsible for 6 to 7 kids from different backgrounds. Each village had 25 homes under a ‘trained’ caregiver or stand-in mom. Unique to the set-up, villagers look just like one big, normal, happy family. ‘Surrogate’ moms would cook and do the laundry for the kids who’d go to kindergarten or public schools and later in the day find a household to return to. “Overall, it replicated an atmosphere of maternal-familial love, raising life standards for women in remote towns,” Sadat confirmed.

Wafa wal Aamal (or Faith and Hope in English) is the charity Mrs. Sadat helped put up for thousands of disabled. Engaged in the war between Egypt and Israel, she engineered a major plan. “Even before my husband started waging peace to end war, I got myself involved with disabled war veterans and civilians. I truly wanted to give hope back to my people by training amputees for jobs, by allowing them to go back as active members of society.”

Her drive behind Faith and Hope stemmed from training disadvantaged veterans to try and rejoin the community with the vision of tomorrow. “It was my biggest project ever for the less fortunate. I sent them to camps for the disabled in Germany; then they’d come back to Egypt. We conducted exchange visits sending them to our hospitals there. In Egypt, we opened a dialysis centre as well as a factory manufacturing prosthetics. A project next door from the SOS Village occupied a fraction of SOS’ land to accommodate handicap’s homes, a place for indoor and outdoor activities and a sustained medical supervision unit. I even brought Frank Sinatra to Egypt for a concert whose proceeds went to the SOS and Wafa wal Aamal, combined.”

Having witnessed the ravages of war herself, this fine lady, whose autumns and springs are spent in her second home in breathtaking Great Falls in Virginia, takes the issue of peace no less seriously. She said, “Women can play a role alongside their husbands and their offspring. Give them the opportunity to take front-line, they can win the battle to end war and violence.”

Executive Talk: Jehan Sadat

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